I was watching a news program a few days ago, and they showed a motorcycle stuntman with the Shrine Circus hit a cable, plummet 20 or more feet, and fall on a clown. The clown probably saved his life, accidentally, and most of the people in the stands thought it was part of the act. The motorcycle stuntman suffered some broken bones and the clown, amazingly, was not hurt. Well that incident reminded me of the Shrine Circuses we used to see as kids, and what become known as the “Shrine Circus Gorilla Incident” which involved my grandmother and my little brother Steven. This probably won’t sound all that funny to anyone else, but to us kids that summer, those that were there, this couldn’t have been more hilarious.
The first Shrine Circus was held in Detroit Michigan in 1906. Starting out as a one-ring circus, in a very few years it grew to a three-ring affair. The circus’ are affiliated with the “Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.” That’s a mouthful, and there is more than one Shrine Circus, each affiliated or prefaced by the sponsoring Shrine organization. The one that came to my home town was the “Kalif Shrine Circus,” put on by the “Nobles of the Powder River Shrine Club,” and we always enjoyed it. I don’t know much about the Shrine Circus, but I know it’s run as one of the major fundraisers, not for Shriners Hospitals for Children, but mostly for their own Shrine Temple operations. Thus the ticket donation, or any other donation to the circus is not tax-deductible as a charitable contribution. They contract or lease animals from other circus groups and have often had star performers from other circuses on tour with them.
This particular June day in 1964 my grandmother offered to take us to the Shrine Circus which was being held for three days at the rodeo grounds. We didn’t get any circus tent, and the seats we had in the stands weren’t the greatest for watching a circus, but we were excited and enjoying every minute of it. We were sitting about halfway up in the bleachers in a section to the right of the main aisle. The elephants were there, and the trick ponies, and the clowns, and the trapeze artists, and the lion tamer, and the high wire act. They shot the guy out of the cannon, and ten clowns exited a small car that couldn’t possibly fit all of them. It didn’t take much to entertain us I guess.
I was sitting next to my little brother who was sitting next to my grandmother, bless her heart. My other brother, Tom, was sitting on my left. My sisters were there too, I think, but I don’t know where they were sitting. They pulled this circus cage into the center ring with a gorilla who was obviously agitated and straining to get out. He rocked the cage back and forth to the uneasiness of us kids. We watched in horror as the gorilla bent the bars open and escaped, chasing all the clowns and gorilla handlers around the center ring. Then he took off for the stands to the squeals and screams of the audience. My brother Steve was noticeable fearful, and he had reason. Tom whispered in my ear, “This isn’t going to be good.”
The previous Halloween, we discovered my little brother Steve, probably four at the time, was petrified of a gorilla costume that one of the neighbor kids was wearing. He would absolutely go bonkers screaming at this kid, until he took off the mask. As soon as the mask went back on, he screamed like he was being gutted. So we had to go trick or treating in separate groups. That summer, just before the Shrine Circus, my brother and I, and Jeff, the neighbor kid, decided to test out this fear of gorillas. We put two bamboo rods in the side door of the garage to look like a cage. Jeff put on the suit and mask, and got behind the bars. We shut the door and went to look for little Steven.
“Do you want to see what we have in the garage?” Tom said to him. He was game. So we dragged him by the arm and opened the door. Behind the bars was Jeff in full gorilla regalia, making what he thought sounded like agitated gorilla sounds, and pulling on the bamboo rods, jumping up and down…and within seconds, Steve screamed at the top of his little lungs. We assured him that the gorilla was safely behind bars and he couldn’t get him. He calmed down a bit, but was still very nervous.
And then Jeff the Gorilla ripped the bamboo bars out of the door and ran after my brother who was by now turning a three-minute mile towards the back door of the house. He made it safely inside, and we rolled with laughter. Until my mother appeared in the doorway. “What are you boys doing to Steve?” she screamed at us. Jeff was sent over the fence to his house and we were incarcerated in our rooms for an hour, promising never to do that again. Jeff left the mask in the yard. When Steve when back outside to play, he saw it and screamed bloody murder. It wasn’t the gorilla he was afraid of, it was the mask.
So my brother and I watched with anticipation as the gorilla made his way through the crowd. He was behind us now coming down the aisle. “UUh. UUh. UUh.” he grunted as he made his way towards us, stopping every so often to pound on his chest. Steve was clutching my grandmother for dear life. And then…the gorilla sat on Steve’s lap! Of all the hundreds of kids he could have picked, he picked him. The look of alarm in the eye’s of the man inside of the gorilla costume, a better costume, I have to say, than the one we had used, was classic. Tom and I were laughing uncontrollably. Steve was screaming murderously. My grandmother, who had no idea what was going on, was trying to console him. The gorilla ran off, with one terse look back. He continued down to the center ring where he somehow managed to pull a bra off one of the circus actors, and, beating his chest, ran out of the arena chased by the gorilla handlers and the clowns.
It makes me laugh even today, thinking about it. We tried to explain it all to my grandmother who was about to have a stroke, and she vowed never to take us to the circus again. We were chastised, even my sisters who had no idea, for not telling her about little Steve’s fear of gorillas.
“He’s not afraid of gorillas, Nana,” Tom explained, “he’s only afraid of the mask.”