La Bonche family interview the VERY SAME circus performer who appeared in Fenwick’s archives over 50 years ago!
by Squeezebox Rosie
Arthur Fenwick did not just collect newspaper articles for his scrapbooks, but was also close friends with many circus owners and performers whose anecdotes and correspondence greatly enrich and enliven the archive. Keen to get some first-hand interviews ourselves, the family La Bonche all piled into the yellow, starry bus and set off to Blackpool to meet Circus Professionals Yuri and Tonya Gridneff.
Yuri and Tonya have had a long varied career performing in musical halls and variety shows with their unicycling, juggling and dance acts, and although retired from the stage they’re kept busy running the Blackpool Youth Circus! As a group of enthusiastic young performers we were all ears to learn how their circus careers started. Yuri grew up in the profession as both his parents and many of his uncles performed all over the world as the Amazing Gridneffs ladder balancing act, starting at a Siberian circus run by Yuri’s grandparents. They travelled in a traditional one-pole circus tent, which was still pulled by horses in the late 1940s, and this is where Arthur Fenwick caught up with him. Imagine our surprise when we returned to the Tyne & Wear Archives the following week and found an article collected by Fenwick showing this amazing photo of the backstage life of young Yuri balancing on his father Micheal’s head!
In contrast to Yuri Tonya wasn’t born into circus but trained at Corona Academy Stage School in London, and formed her first circus act with Yuri after they married. They described the hours of practice, the free performances given to first attract an agent, and the costume (and nationality!) changes they were told to make in order to be more appealing. Named after a popular film duo Yuri and Tonya, were advised to dress in traditional Russian attire, and be billed as a Russian act!
They pass on their wealth of experience to the children in Blackpool Youth Circus, and value a professional attitude as highly as natural talent. Punctuality especially is important: Tonya was once fined £1 out of a £3.50 wage for being 5 minutes late to a variety performance! She also vividly described to us the moment aged 12 when she first appeared on stage and the huge rush of adrenaline as the full Orchestra struck up the opening chords from the pit. Hearing the inception of her love for performing was exactly the sort of first-hand experience we’d come to record, and Yuri shared his favourite childhood memory too: being bought a pork sandwich for his 16th by star of the show Guy Mitchell, whilst working at the Dudley Hippodrome with the Amazing Gridneffs!