Reprinted with permission from an article in Reminisce Extra June 1997
Some kids dreamed of running away with the circus…but this 5 year-old joined the Chautauqua Circuit.
By Mildred Bowsher, Circleville, Ohio
IN THE SUMMER of 1914, we lived across the street from the high school in Circleville, Ohio.
One day I noticed a large tent had been set up next to the school. I was all of 5 years old then, and my curiosity got the best of me. Some of my little friends and I went to investigate.
We were caught peeking under the tent by a man named Reno and his wife. Magicians traveling the Chautauqua circuit, they showed us the rabbits, pigeons and guinea pigs used in their act.
I must have made an impression because before long I was lifted up onto the stage and asked to be part of their show. Of course, I said, “Yes!”
We walked across the street, and the Renos asked Mother whether she’d allow me to join the tour. After a long discussion, she agreed.
Mother was on her own at the time, and I think she hoped for a better life for me, the sixth of eight children.
I lived with the Renos for the next 4 years. The constant rush of performing, packing, traveling and setting up became a way of life. I kept in contact with my family by writing often.
In the winter, we stayed at the Renos’ home in Kankakee, Illinois, where I attended school. Sometimes Madame Reno and I performed magic programs at schools and lodges. I also recited poetry at the Chicago Lyceum Theater.
What an Experience!
I met a lot of wonderful people. Most were folks with simple tastes and manners more than skin deep.
The Renos trained me to assist them in their magical feats. A favorite was the mystifying trunk change, in which Mr. Reno was bound by audience members, and then locked inside a trunk behind a curtain.
I’d begin counting, ” 1…2..” —- Presto! Mr. Reno finished the count on “3″ , opening the curtain to reveal me inside the trunk! I could also “magically” name cards drawn from a deck by people in the audience.
We often entertained soldiers during World War I. I even had my own special trick —-turning an urnful of sawdust into an urnful of chocolate kisses,which I then threw to the soldiers.
Mr. Reno was quite a character in his own right. Born in New York State, he was performing in Africa for the French troops by the age of 13. Before the days of tent shows he criss-crossed America as an itinerant performer.
One story related how he’d been journeying north of Provo, Utah with a pack mule when he came upon a war council of Ute Indians. Mr. Reno thought quickly and went into his act.
He made rocks disappear, and he swallowed a knife, which then turned up in an Indian’s clothing. He tossed eggs in the air and found them unbroken in a brave’s blanket. Greatly impressed, the Indians gave him safe escort.
In his days with the Redpath Chautauqua circuit, Mr. Reno often displayed similar ingenuity. One time during the 1914 season, the train we were taking to the next show had a regulation against taking trunks on board. Investigating further, Mr. Reno discovered the interurban line did accept coffins. So he rented a coffin, placed his equipment inside and rode as a “relative of the deceased”!
Those who traveled often with Mr. Reno told how, when a waiter in the dining room offered him a biscuit, he might pull a 50 cent piece out of it. To the bug-eyed waiter’s confusion, Mr. Reno would demand a fresh supply….then pull another coin out of one of those! He’d then ask for a extra knife, which immediately turned into a spoon. Reproachfully, Mr. Reno would reach into the fellow’s white jacket and pull out the knife.
The Renos treated me wonderfully. Another special part of my Chautauqua “family” were the Parnells—a husband-and-wife duo who sang and created beautiful music on several instruments. “Aunt Effie” and “Uncle Emory” were great to a liffle girl so far from home.
My Chautauqua days ended when I was 9. I’d come home to visit Mother, who’d remarried, and discovered I had a new baby sister. Intriqued, I decided not to go back to the show.
That was 79 years ago. but I still tease my sister Katie about “ruining” my show business career!