a newspaper editor always has been something of a high wire act. But for Peggy
O’Neal, it was easy.|
An aerialist in the Gainesville Community Circus since
1949, she became society editor for the local newspaper in March 1953. Under the
big top, Peggy and her husband George O’Neal were “The Sweethearts of the Air.”
At the newspaper, Peggy’s act mostly consisted of writing about Cooke County folks
with their heads in the clouds--sweethearts newly engaged or newly married.
Peggy’s skills on the trapeze might seem somewhat unusual for someone working
on a newspaper—until you realize that the Gainesville Circus and the Gainesville
Daily Register were linked by the same man: A. Morton Smith, circus ringmaster
and newspaper editor.
When the Gainesville Little Theatre found itself
in debt back in 1929, put out of business by the growing popularity of talkies—movies
with spoken dialog. Smith, who had been a circus fan all his life, suggested a
circus fund-raiser. The theatre troupe, joined by family and friends, threw themselves
energetically into their new project. Women made costumes; men hammered out rings
A housewife and mother taught herself to perform a stunt
called “the Spanish web” on ropes thirty feet above the ground. A teenage soda
jerk became a daring young man on a flying trapeze. A grain dealer provided a
practice ring for bareback riders. High school girls learned flashy aerobatics.
Would-be clowns met after-hours in courthouse offices to work out their make-up,
costumes and stunts.
By the spring of the next year, they were ready to
put on two performances in an exhibit hall of the Cooke County Fair Association.
The circus earned plenty enough to pay off the Little Theatre’s debts.
Realizing they were on to something, the participants immediately began to work
out new acts to for the following year. The Gainesville Community Circus soon
took off like a clown shot from a cannon.
Editor Smith temporarily put
aside his writing and other duties at the Daily Register to don a top hat and
tails and perform as ringmaster.
The Cooke County troupe put on their
first road show 30 miles to the south at the Denton County Fair in 1931. The following
year they gave 10 performances including two in Oklahoma. In 1936 the Community
Circus played before large audiences at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.
Billy Rose, the most famous showman of his time, pronounced it “the most delightful
thing I have ever seen.”
In 1939 Elliott Roosevelt, President Franklin
Roosevelt’s second son, served as honorary ringmaster. That same year, on May
8, the circus was playing in Ardmore, Oklahoma when the tent was destroyed by
a tornado. No one got hurt, but the loss of the tent proved a major set back.
Still, the show must go on. It took a while, but somehow the community circus
managed to put itself back together. The company included the performers, the
wardrobe people, property men, ticket sellers and ushers, and a 20-member band.
No one made a cent for themselves, except the roustabout crew who set up and took
down the tents.
After Roosevelt’s appearance, the show continued to attract
big names. Gainesville native Gene Austin, a composer, singer and movie star,
opened the 1940 Circus Roundup of the Gainesville Circus.
Through the years
the circus acquired a menagerie of animals, including lions, chimpanzees, an elephant
and several ponies. Eventually some of those animals would find permanent homes
in the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville.
In 1954 the Gainesville Community
Circus suffered another blow, worse even than the Ardmore tornado. Fire damaged
the big top and equipment. Again, no one was killed or injured, but the circus
soon suffered an irreplaceable loss.
In April 1957 Morton Smith died.
He had been ringmaster and program director for 25 years. Determined to keep the
show going even without Smith, the performers and crew patched up their tent and
put on another performance, this time in Odessa in 1958.
But in the same
way that talking movies had put the original Little Theatre out of business in
1928, television and home air conditioning marked the end of the Gainesville Community
Circus. Gainesville’s version of the greatest show on earth was history.