Of tigers, horses and primates

Big brother Rod loved all of nature, so while he was studying engineering at Penn when we were living in Powelton, we spent a lot of time at the Philly zoo, with his main concentration (of course) on the Reptile House. We lived about half a mile from the zoo, which had free admission on certain days.

The zoo then was fairly primitive and rattle-trap: heavily barred cages set on concrete bases outside, not that much different inside. No matter how recently we’d visited, Rod would stop to read each descriptive sign top to bottom. I’d be worn down like an old watchspring by the end of the day, my feet whining despite my love of the big cats and the Small Mammal House. Rod, as sturdy as an English oak, would carry me home on his shoulders.

One of the zoo’s stars was Bamboo, the oldest gorilla then in captivity. He had two unfortunate habits: One was luring unwary gawkers to his enclosure, then rearing back and pelting them with a fistfull of shit. The other was ripping the arms off keepers. He was not a happy captive. 

Next to him, Massa was just a couple years younger and went on to outlive Bamboo by quite a spate before choking to death on a cake presented to him on his last birthday: “It’s my party, and I’ll die if I want to…”

When I joined the Welcomat as arts editor in 1981 or ’82, I picked up side work writing features for the Philly zoo’s membership quarterly. It took me behind the scenes for long interview-chats with the curators at a time when the zoo was continually modernizing. The mag’s editor was a freelance designer who also forged guns in his garage machine shop. I found him genuinely crazy. We got along fine.

The zoo’s director, Donaldson, was a bearded, fatherly type with an endearing charisma. But he harbored a… strange undercurrent. Talking to him in his office, we drifted onto the subject of raising teenagers. His approach: “When they reach 16, I break their plate and tell them they’re on their own.” He illustrated the comment with a sharp, plate-shattering gesture. 

As one of my perks, Donaldson invited Linda, me and my daughter Erin to an evening members party at the Cat House (as I thought of it). Forty or fifty people jostled in front the the tiger cages, where Monty, a large tiger (son of Kundar, a momentous tiger) stopped dead in his tracks, staring at Erin. As she moved, he followed her, first with his eyes, then with his pacing. This kept up the whole time she was in sight of his cage. I took perverse delight that a tiger would want to eat my daughter. 

When Donaldson died a few years later, I wrote an article for the Welcomat extolling his work at the zoo but suggesting that his divide-and-conquer approach with the staff had set them dueling. I also referred to one of the staff as Snake Woman – and not for her love of legless reptiles. The next day the zoo mag’s nutty editor called Dan, the Welco editor, and demanded that I be fired for anti-zoological heresy. Then Snake Woman called me directly – uh oh, I do not like confrontation – to tell me my comments had been spot on. Ya never know.

Linda had a more direct encounter with a tiger at the Cape May Zoo in New Jersey (a remarkable small zoo). We were standing close to the outdoor enclosure. The cat nonchalantly backed up to the fence and I yanked Linda aside as it let loose a firehose of piss in her direction. And some people think animals don’t have a sense of humor.

The saddest day in the history of the Philly zoo involved a fire in the primate house that killed most of the gorillas. The biggest loss was the alpha male, John. Snake Woman had always been adamant that no one should anthropomorphize an animal. With John, I found it unavoidable. He would sit with majestic, commanding indifference, unperturbed by gawking humanity.

During my trip to Europe as a proper young bum-around with my friends Marcia and Steve, I spent time along the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia, back when there was still a Yugoslavia (someone had carved “Tito” into a watermelon left sitting by the roadway). 

The tight, peninsular city of Split, now in Croatia, harbored a small zoo with a wide range of exotic animals, including a stunningly gorgeous Indian pheasant. I stopped by a cage holding a large monkey – not a baboon, I’m pretty sure, but definitely male, as it made plain by humping at me through the bars. That was the only time I’ve been propositioned in public.

Zoos enthralled me, but I never much liked circuses as a kid. Every year, when the granddaddy of all, the Ringling, would set up its monstrous tent in the lot at the end of my Aunt Beck’s street in Upper Darby, Rod would buy a couple tickets and take me. We didn’t have much money, so we ended up near the top at one end, where it was about 105 degrees. With my wretched eyesight I couldn’t see half of what was going on – and it was all going on at once, in all three rings. The third ring, down at the other end, was a misty supposition, while the main act, in the center ring, was  mostly obscured by the always-lesser antics directly below us.

These were great seats for the aerial acts, but somehow they never caught my fancy. I admired the trapezers coordination, since I had none, but I couldn’t see the point to all these spangled people spinning around and catching each other. I wanted them to drop. Most of them had nets, so they’d just bounce anyway. Worse were the choreographed spangle-fests with over-muscled men and women sliding down wires while twirling to insipid music.

I did like several individual acts, like the guy who could balance on one finger on a spinning globe… though I wondered how anyone came to choose such a life’s work. Did he wake up one morning, thunderstruck: “I shall commit my existence to balancing upon one finger on a spinning globe”? Or did a ringmaster, hoping to shoo off a would-be roustabout, tell him, ”get outa here, ya friggin’ idiot – go spin on your finger”?

Still, the only thing I really cared about was the cat act. In those days it was almost always lions – tigers were a rarity. Lions are lazy and dumb. Tigers think too much; they’re wired and they yearn for action. They don’t want to be part of the act, they want to be the act, and they don’t take shit. Lions want to eat. Tigers just want.

In those days, when the Ringling big top was the world’s largest portable structure that didn’t fly, when freaks like the Monkey Woman and her husband the Alligator Man held forth with strange dignity in the wondrous sideshow tent, lion trainers fired blanks and made pointless lunges at their beasts with stools and chairs. The Ringling trainers did it better than the others. I always flinched at loud sounds, and those  ringing shots had me hanging onto the bench ten feet from the sloping top of the tent. It was more hype than grace – just what I needed. 

Years later, Julie and I took Morgan and Erin to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. It too set up in tents – long after Ringling had folded theirs and moved to arenas – at a race track north of Philly. It was a more intimate affair than Ringling, maybe because the lure of the circus was dying by the early ’70s. We could get front row seats near the center of the action and be bothered by the clowns, who hated children. They “pretended” to chase kids or stomped them or loomed over them like falling asteroids. One grabbed a cotton candy from a five-year-old, then shoved it in the kid’s face.

We went to the Cole Bros. show three years running. My eyesight had improved somewhat, and I was close enough to see what was going on. Even the aerial acts began to intrigue me. Alas, the lion tamer was a rank idiot who stormed into the big cage shooting his blanks, cracking his whip and waving his chair like a vaudeville act. The lions looked like they’d just been prodded awake from a two-hour nap – because they had. Outside, I’d watched the keeper jabbing them with a pole in their portable cages, trying to get them to stand up straight; they just snorted “piss off” roarlets at him. So the cats generated slightly less tension than tainted mayonnaise at a church picnic.

During a dozen years of reviewing the annual International Theatre Festival for Children at Penn’s Annenberg Center, I saw six or eight small-scale circuses, three- and four-person outfits that could fit on a mainstage – acts from Canada, Moscow, England, China, all the hell over the world. Most were amazing in their dexterity, tilted humor and ability to master every kind of circus act known to man. They could put the Ringling to shame in virtually every area but one – no cat acts. You don’t want lions and tigers and bears, oh my, roaming the audience of a major cultural center.

I never fully understood circuses until one of the trips Linda and I and Caitlin took to Pentwater, MI, in the early ’90s. We saw advance signs for the Franzen Bros. Circus, inviting people to the school ballfield to watch them set up their tent. I looked at those signs with a visceral turn of wonder… Will they do it? Will they really do it?

They did. They used elephants to put up the tent, like in every circus fairytale you’ve ever read. The pachyderms wrapped their trunks around ropes big enough to knot two semis together, and up went the tent; then roustabouts whacked pins into the ground with sledges and cinched the ropes. A sight I’d long hoped for but never expected to see.

If the Cole Bros. was intimate, the Franzen Bros. was like crawling into a friend’s glove. We roamed the trailers, petting poodles that would later perform like canine sufis, bought balloons from frowsy peddlers who later performed double somersaults that almost brushed the canvas top, paid a buck to a guy who looked like one of Linda’s Kansas relatives so Caitlin could ride a pony that slogged around in a circle, like Arnold Schwarzenneger in Conan; later, that could-be Kansan turned into the circus owner and most incredible animal trainer.

I’d watched Gunther Gebel-Williams at Ringling, and he was spectacular, especially when he stood in the middle of a monstrous arena and bellowed commands to half a dozen elephants dispersed to the far corners. But Gebel-Williams was in spangle mode, bleached hair in waves, Vegas-Elvis leotard poured onto him by the Ringling illusion machine. He was, technically, maybe the best ever – but he’s what you could (and did) see on TV. You could admire Gebel-Williams comfortably while munching potato chips.

But when Wayne Franzen waved his hand and half a dozen tigers – tigers, not wimpy lions – rolled over in unison like pussy cats, I couldn’t eat a thing because my mouth was hanging open.

He was just as good with horses, not only getting the steed to count and spell (like any horse counts and spells in public), but holding a back-forty conversation with the animal, gently chastising “errors,” sharing horsey jokes. And I couldn’t figure out his signaling mechanism. At the Land of Little Horses, near Gettysburg, PA, the woman did it with a slight waver of her left knee, but I haven’t the least idea how Franzen clued the beast. Maybe the horse really could count.

But those tigers… the ease, the lack of hype. No guns, no dickhead props, just a quiet man and his friends, the cats. It created the kind of awe that should surround a circus – a great mystery almost revealed.

Another decade later, in Chambersburg, PA (not that far from the Land of Little Horses), Wayne Franzen was killed by one of his tigers, Lucca, in front of 200 kids at a benefit show, hooked clean through on one of its claws and dragged around the ring like Hector at Troy. Sadness, horror and a strangely personal sense of loss: This man was killed by one of his friends.

Some expouser suggested that Franzen’s new “bright costume,” used only once before, had set the tiger off. I don’t buy it. No, I think brother tiger just woke up pissed off at the world that morning: “Who the fuck’s Wayne to tell me what to do?”

When you look at it, Franzen had a damned near perfect death. From drudgery as a 26-year-old shop teacher he’d gone on to realize a quintessential American fantasy – not just to run away to the circus, but to create one of his own. 24 years later, he ended his career with one of the greatest circus acts of all time.

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