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Issue 78, Autumn 2007 - Zippo's Circus

ZIPPO'S CIRCUS RECALLING VARIETY MEMORIES

By John Moore

Zippo’s Circus, which toured Scotland July into August, visiting Perth, Greenock, Ayr and Stranraer, brought back memories of the times when circus acts were common on theatre variety bills.

By modern standards Zippo’s is a big and an excellent show, housed in a 900-seat four-pole big top. Director of the organisation Martin Burton, also known as Zippo the Clown, did not himself appear in the ring. He left that to "the world’s greatest ringmaster" Norman Barrett who not only mastered the ring and drove the show forward by the power of his personality but also managed to present his own act of budgerigars which he has played all over Europe and in British pantomime.

I have known Norman for two decades from the time he was ringmaster at Blackpool Tower Circus. As a boy he worked in his father’s circus and eventually moved to the legendary Bertram Mills Circus where he became equestrian director, in those days a title synonymous with ringmaster. He had ridden as the Courier of St Petersburg, dressed as Ben Hur, standing one foot on each on the backs of two horses while one by one six liberty horses passed forward between his legs as they all cantered round the ring. His act finish was when his two mounts jumped him over a pole. It was an incredible feat of horsemanship, and an exceedingly spectacular and dangerous act.

The first thing he said to me when I met him on the eve of the first performance on Ayr’s Low Green was, "We saw the Gaiety Whirl last night. What a wonderful show it is!" His wife Sally, a former skater who had toured in many of the great ice shows of yore, chimed in with a paean of praise for Scotland’s only summer variety revue.

The entrance to the big top was facing that curious building on Ayr’s Low Green which resembles a white elephant lying on its back with its feet in the air. It is the Pavilion, scene of Ben Popplewell’s first triumphs in the town, no longer a theatre or dance hall but a children’s playground themed as a pirate ship. But it was enough to bring to mind the great connection there used to be between theatre and circus, which has continued at Ayr Gaiety particularly in the recent pantomime series by Squires and Johns. Mentioning to Norman that in 1933 at the Pavilion in summer season was one feature was a dance act, We Four Girls, which was led by Marie Louise Beck whom I had met in 2000 at Bobby Roberts Super Circus in Ayr. She was by then Bobby’s Aunt Marie having married his Uncle Tommy Roberts.

At that Norman called over Zippo’s equestrian director, Tom Roberts, also Marie’s nephew, and of course Bobby’s brother. The conversation then covered the facts that Tom’s father and mother had both appeared at the Gaiety early in 1941, father Bobby with his brother Tommy and the clown Jimmy Scott as the Robert Brothers on a mixed variety bill, and mother Kitty with her brother Michael and his wife as The Norman Sisters and Michael on a variety bill topped by snooker ace Joe Davis. Three years later Bobby and Tommy formed their Robert Brothers Circus.

Chat then swung on to other acts like clown Coco, and clown Noni, and clown Charlie Cairoli Jnr. Then there was the fantastic balancing of Tommy de Vel, who also worked as the clown Professor Grimble, who Society president Johnny Beattie will remember from Hi-Deedle-Doddle, the Ayr Gaiety pantomime of season 1971/72. Tom was actually Tom Fossett and a direct relative of the Roberts family.

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