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Shrine Circus Days
by Harry Spencer
Apr 03, 2009 | 928 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo by Don Dondero, courtesy of Hary Spencer
A photo from the book "Dateline: Reno," featuring the work of long-time local photographer Don Dondero, shows entertainer Jack "Jive" Schaeffer playing his trumpet despite the reaction from his primate audience.
Photo by Don Dondero, courtesy of Hary Spencer A photo from the book "Dateline: Reno," featuring the work of long-time local photographer Don Dondero, shows entertainer Jack "Jive" Schaeffer playing his trumpet despite the reaction from his primate audience.
The recent appearance of the Kerak Shrine Circus in Reno at the Livestock Events Center recalled how the presentation of the annual show has changed over the years.

Back in the 1960s, when my office was located on the mezzanine of the Mapes Hotel, next to he broadcast studio and office of Bob Stoddard’s KATO radio station, I would get all sorts of first-time visitors. While our function was to do the marketing and publicity for the hotel, we also served as a handy place to refer complaints and to send persons who really weren’t quite sure of what they were trying to find in the building.

One morning, my secretary buzzed to say that there was a gentleman named Sam Ward who would like to see me. As he rounded the corner toward my space, he appeared in sections; first was a long, black Cuban -style cigar, then a paunchy stomach, a large proboscis and the rest of Sam himself. He tossed his business card on my desk and settled into the desk-side chair. I noted from his card that he represented the circus. When I asked him what I could do for him, he informed me that he was staying as the hotel and had heard that I was the new publicity man. I replied in the affirmative and again asked him how I could help him.

He started out with, “I’m what is known as an ‘advance man’ and I stay about 30 days ahead of the circus as it makes way from town to town. My job is to visit the media and stir up as much interest and ticket sales for he show as possible. Since I’m not a wrier by nature, I thought I might get you to do some publicity for us.”

I responded that the only pro bono work I did was for the Reno Rodeo, otherwise my time was taken up by the Mapes and a handful of other clients I handled.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a substantial roll of money and said, “Oh, I intend to pay for any service - how about $50 a week?”

I said that I thought I could work him into the mix.

At that particular time, the Shriners were a very big deal in downtown Reno, particularly at the Mapes, where they maintained a small office at the other end of the mezzanine and regularly held meetings and special events in other public rooms at the hotel. One of the big events they sponsored annually was a huge trainload of Bay Area Shriners that would make a weekend trip to the Biggest Little City. - a trip that greatly enhanced the coffers of the casinos and hotels in the downtown core.

Fortunately, in those days, Reno boasted a morning newspaper (Nevada State Journal) and an afternoon paper (Reno Gazette) so there was plenty of outlet for publicity stories and pictures. One of the fort things that I was able to do for Sam and the circus was to get a good friend, contractor Rodney Bowdwin, who happened to be the Exalted Ruler that year, to pose for a number of publicity pictures and to give his approval to a series of news releases and background stories, not only on the circus itself, but abut all the charitable Shrine work.

Another good publicity event was that the Shriners sponsored an annual train from the cities east of Reno on which youngsters were transported free of charge to attend the circus.

In those early days, the show was presented with no “Big Top” on the grounds of the old Mackay Stadium football field, which proved to be an excellent venue.

For all the Shriner Circus promotional work, I employed the indefatigable photographer Don Dondero. Each year we got a “signature shot,” which we used over and over. The picture that accompanies this article was one of our favorites and it was taken of the lounge entertainer, Jack “Jive” Shaffer and one of the circus trained chimps. The reason we selected Jack for the particular shot was that in his three-man lounge offering her started out as a tuxedo-clad, steel rimmed glasses, bald headed, baker type looking horn blower. Midway through the act, he would disappear backstage for a few minutes and the reappear in a terrible “fright wig” and a Tarzan leopard outfit, still wearing his black shoes, long socks and garters and finish the act in the getup that brought down every audience that watched him.

It was easy to persuade him to don the jungle getup, ride up to the University of Nevada, Reno and hook up whit the monkey trainer, who had already prepped the chimp to stick his fingers in his ears and grimace every time Jack sounded a note.

Dondero was so enamored of the shot that he included it on page 87 of his book, “Dateline: RENO” and in addition, a week or so later, he gifted me with a large, two-by-three foot blow up that I kept on the wall behind my desk for number of years.

On another occasion, Sam and I set up a publicity shot wherein one of the circus clowns was to appear in full makeup and give a circus ticket to a youngster who was busily eating cotton candy. When we got to the agreed location, there was no clown anywhere in sight. After some unsuccessful calls to find the missing clown, Sam asked me to wait a few minutes as hustled into he nearby five and dime store. he came out with lipstick, powder, eye makeup and in a short time had transformed his face into a passable clown visage. He took off his fedora, and placed it sideways on his head. He then tied his necktie into a huge bow and put his shirt on backwards. The final result was as good as Jimmy Stewart looked in Cecil B. Demille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The resulting photo was a gem.

As Sam cleaned himself up afterward, he noted, “When you work with a circus for 25 years, you learn to improvise. The only thing I haven’t had to do is follow the elephants around with a broom and garbage can!”

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Shrine Circus Days by Harry Spencer

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