Fred Bradna

At the outset of war Fred worked with Ringling Brothers as the show director, and also agent. He and his wife, Ella, were both naturalised Americans, (he originaly from Germany and She from Hungary) with strong links to Europe. Ella as an equestrienne and star of the centre ring. The Narrative here is extracted from his Autobiography: The Big Top: Fourty years with the greatest show on earth. H Hamilton, 1952. It is set in an approximate chronology.



    As far back as June 1913 I was more than aware that war threatened Europe. Ella and I are naturalised Americans and personally have nothing to fear. Grimly shadowing me, however, is the knowledge that had I remained in Europe, and the war is on us, I would become a reluctant officer in the Kaiser’s army, and probably secretly planning with my father to jump into the French forces at an expedient moment. So in June I communicated to Mr. John (Ringling) my longing to see my father.

   ‘You should go’ he said.

   For him, master of millions, that is easy to say. For me, who lives up to my income, it is more difficult.

   ‘Circus performers do not get rich’ I said.

   ‘I will send you,’ Mr. John said.

He booked passages for Ella and me on the German liner Kaiserin Augusta Victoria for November 8, 1913, just two days after the season closed in Louisville, Kentucky. My assignment: to scout the Balkans for new circus talent. Mr John anticipates the peril that for some years frontiers might be closed, preventing the flow of stars from European circuses. He relied on my knowledge of German, and Ella’s dexterity with the Balkan tongues to do the job. Particularly he was interested in the Kŏnyöt family, a Hungarian troupe of fourteen persons so versatile that they perform six different specialities.

   After a stop in Paris during which Ella replenished her wardrobe, we went to Switzerland, where my brother Emil is the owner of the restaurant Wolfe in Basle. He loves cookery, and has amassed a fortune during six years as chef to Czar Nicholas of the Russians. Emil accompanied us to Strasbourg for a ten-day reunion with my parents and our daughter Helen.

   My father, who had never forgiven me for joining a circus, softened after a day of sternness, and received me as his son, though he did not hide his disappointment in me. Father told me that he has already completed plans to assume a French infantry command at the outbreak of war.

   As we are spending Mr. John’s money we could not stay in Strasbourg indefinitely, and finally have gone about our work engaging the Kŏnyöts. Our entree was Ella’s sister Beata, whose Rumanian wine-merchant husband knows everyone of consequence in the Balkans. So here we have another family reunion at Crayvo, near Bucharest.

   Business wise the trip was a success. We have engaged the Kŏnyöts and helped them plan their passage for the coming winter. Another find is the Italian Baghonghi, a midget who employs a ‘mechanic’ to do a comedy bareback routine in full dress. And in Berlin we have signed the Josephon Troupe, four Icelanders who will give American audiences their first demonstration of ‘glima’, Iceland’s self-defence wrestling.

We will sail for home on the Bremen, a ten-thousand-ton liner, and arrive just in time to start working in vaudeville at New York’s Colonial Theatre.

   We plan to return to Europe later in the year, Ella has a contract with Circus Schumann.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B F


SEPT 1914

General Director Fred Bradna had intended going to Europe for a rest and vacation at the close of the season, but on account of the war he has regretfully had to change his mind, and will possibly winter in the South Seas, and while there endeavor to pick up some new sensations for next season.

Ella Bradna and Fred Derrick had contracts signed and accepted for the Circus Schumann, in Berlin, Germany, but on account of the war they have had to cancel them.

19/9/1914 New York Clipper


JULY 1915


   A black cloud has enveloped The Greatest Show on Earth. War has engulfed Europe, drying up our sources of talent. Many of the best acts have gone home, their principals called to the service of a dozen nations. No replacements can be imported in substitution. aside from the high aerialists, a distinctly American contribution, this mighty show is thin.

   Ella and every other first-rate performer has doubled up with an extra act to fill the bill. There is a much heavier work load for everyone, greater risks, shorter tempers, and continual exhaustion. The fun has gone from trouping. All the bareback riders are required to work a jockey act in addition to their features. Ella has teamed with Derrick, Bill Wallet and Rose Wentworth in a pony riding turn. The Rooneys, an Irish riding family, resurrected an old turn from their youth, a comedy act involving a horse-drawn carriage. The Kŏnyöts are all over the programme, six times appearing by name and five times as Spelvins, ( you know the name traditionally utilised to cover duplication in casting). Acrobats are doubled on the tight wire; trapeze stars have become hand balancers; slack-wire virtuosi are displaying as tumblers and plate spinners. Anything to fill up the greedy rings and stages.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B,F


MAY 1916

When the circus plays in Washington, D. C., we occasionally have a visit from the President of the United States. Woodrow Wilson is a particularly ardent fan, and with great reluctance turned down Mr. Charlie Ringlings invitation, one year, to ride on an elephant. The President was game, but his advisers declined to permit a Democrat to ride on the symbol of Republicanism.    

Anyway, today The President employed the circus for political purposes. The nation is in ferment debating whether or not to enter the war on the side of the Allies against the Central Powers. The President stands for peace. Whilst everyone thinks that he would be a candidate for re-election, he had not announced his intent. As I escorted him across the arena, from the performers’ entrance to his reserved seat, to the music of ‘Hail to the Chief’, he doffed his hat and threw it squarely into the middle of the centre ring. The gesture was immediately interpreted by the crowd, who cheered lustily, while newspaper reporters sprinted for the exits to telephone their journals that “Wilson literally had thrown his hat into the ring.”

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B F


AUG 1916

   Keeping peace among the eighteen nationalities is my most difficult task. Earlier this season Georgetti, a French hand balancer, departed to fight for France, and the pro-Allied stars gave him a testimonial dinner at which many insults were levelled at the Germanic members of the family. We have not recovered from the resulting loss of morale, and almost daily some reference to the banquet is made in the backyard, leading to epithets and general hostility.

   Ernie Anderson, an English clown, noisily displays in the dressing tent any newspapers whose headlines proclaim Allied advantages in the war. In retaliation Emil Pallenberg, the German bear trainer, has begun to paste over his mirror clips which detail the victories of the Central Powers. Everyone has taken sides in this war of nerves. Accidents are starting to happen in the ring which never should have occurred, owing to distraught tempers and constant turmoil. I have spoken to both Anderson and Pallenberg, reminding them that their feud is endangering the safety of us all; but nationalism once loosed is, like an unbroken stallion, difficult to curb.

   The affair finally reached its climax this morning outside the dressing tent. The Central Powers have just won an important battle. Anderson was brooding over this crisis when Pallenberg asked him derisively whether or not he had seen the headlines. Enraged Anderson poured a bucket of water over Pallenberg’s head, struck him with the bucket, and went after him with a tent stake. Pallenberg, a much stronger man physically, roared like one of his ferocious bears and fled for his life. The Englishman chased him all over the backyard. Pallenberg took refuge in the ticket wagon.

   The treasurer, Mr. Hutchinson, has threatened to fire both culprits if there is any more nationalism displayed anywhere on the lot. I hope this will put an end to overt belligerency.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B F


SEPT 1916

   The ill will continues. Many families who had been friends now refrain from speaking. In the cook tent, lifelong companionships are broken up. Meals have become furtive for many. A man whose only sin is German ancestry bolts his meal at the sound of Gallic tongues at the tent flap. High-School riders who previously had been interchangeable now refuse to work opposite ends of the same top. If the music for an act is French, in deference to the mademoiselle in the centre ring, the Austrian tumblers decline to work the platform simultaneously. Wholesale rearranging of the programme is now necessary, and I, whose duty it is to keep the performance functioning smoothly, face almost daily adjustments in billing. In the midst of all this chaos Al Ringling, the oldest of the brothers, has died.

   Somehow we’ve blundered through the season, playing to poor attendance everywhere. The American public saves its cash against hard days ahead. Mediocre gates exhaust cash reserves and management tempers also become short. The closing date – November 13 in Memphis – gleams like a faint aperture at the end of a dark tunnel.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B F


APRIL 1917


America has declared war on Germany. With my military training I offered myself at once, but the American army spurned me. I had been a German soldier. No amount of pleading that I had been in the Kaisers ranks through compulsion, under the universal military service law, swayed anyone. Americans are naive about history. If I was a recruiting officer, I should instantly have commissioned an Alsatian such as myself to fight against Germany; but I can find no one in America who understands my position. Many of our American stalwarts however have immediately joined the army, and Alf T. Ringling, as usual in charge of specs and tableaux, is unable for the first time in his career to extemporise adequately in the face of many cancelled contracts, the show is ragged.                  

   The army and industry have so cut our personnel that as the circus leaves Madison Square Garden for the road we have only eighty canvas men instead of the usual hard working two hundred and fifty; only twenty middle-aged to elderly property men compared to the normal eighty husky youngsters. The ticket wagon has lost everyone except the general manager and the treasurer. Of electricians, carpenters, and other skilled mechanics there are none with circus experience. There is no blacksmith of any kind. The sideshow manager is strictly on his own, picking up freaks where he can find them – and some just merely long enough to get a free ride to a munitions factory town, where they jump without notice. We have virtually no ostlers, grooms or valets and only one wardrobe mistress for the eighty girls.

   As for me, I am now not only the equestrian director but – as in my first season with Bailey – canvas-man, stake driver, property boy, ostler and groom. Many a day I help to drive two hundred stakes before 6a.m., then move fifty trunks into the ladies dressing tent before hurrying to review the parade route with police officials, then rushing back to mount and head the parade. Many a night I am the last to crawl aboard the train.

   As though all this is not enough, the Secret Service is following us, constantly finger printing and harassing our foreign-born as though they might turn disloyal between Milwaukee and Madison, or even between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. We will not play at Washington D. C. at all.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B F


AUG 1917

   Oddly morale is improving. Men who are working fifteen hours a day have no breath for argument. With the United States definitely committed to war, personnel of German sentiments have been screened out and we are once again a congenial, if weary, family. There are depressing episodes, naturally. For example kindly, quiet Bruno Weise, a fine gentleman who balances a pole on his shoulder while his two husky partners, Alfred and Otto, do great tricks at the top. In some cities people in the audience are booing his entrance. He has a fierce pride, and his pro-American sentiments are unimpeachable. He takes the abuse with clenched teeth, and drives his share of stakes.

   All the able-bodied men, and some of the stronger women, take turns morning and night getting the show up and down. Mr. Hutchinson is offering one dollar extra pay for each stint of this work, and nearly every man is pocketing an extra twelve dollars a week. But money is not the incentive. Such is the tradition of show people that they would mount and break up the circus whether they were paid to or not. Every day is a challenge. Great stars are loading trunks, seats and stringers; the slighter women carry such things as chairs. But there is less bickering and complaining than any season I’ve previously worked.

   Despite difficulties we parade every day. The management consider this a contribution to civilian morale. To all America, a parade has become the symbol for men marching to war, and a brass band is the crowd-gatherer for another Liberty Loan drive. Then the circus comes to town. Seeing its parade, which has no other purpose that to entertain them, the citizens let off the calliope steam of tensions and dissipate, at least for one day, the mental agonies of war.

Occasionally during a parade someone will call to me from the kerb, “Hey buddy, why aren’t you in the army?” All I can reply is, “I wish I were.” All my male relatives are fighting for France. To all my other burdens I have the added frustration of being on the military sidelines.

   Yesterday was a cruelly hot day, and following the afternoon performance in Toledo, Ohio, Charlie Ringling and his son Robert took me on a swimming party in Lake Erie. As we relaxed on the sand, Charlie said to no one in particular, “We could get round all the shortages if we combined the two big shows. Then we’d have help enough, and acts enough, to go on. What a show that would be!”

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B F


MAY 1918

Woodrow Wilson came too. We made a record $3350 on the first day. George Auger, the Cardiff colossus and Wild Dancing Man have been especially popular and indeed quite a sensation.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: P N


SEPT 1918

 The Ringlings have folded their tents a month early and put the show in winter quarters. But they did not retire to Baraboo, Wisconsin, as usual. They have sent everything to Bridgeport, home of Barnum and Bailey! Now we know of the impending changes in the Ringling tradition, and have just received our orders to close also.

Late this summer an influenza epidemic struck. It has been devastating in the circus, especially with the bandsmen infecting each other. Henry Ringling has also died.   Patronage on our show fell below the break-even point. The Ringling show was in the same difficulty. The brothers met. They concluded the war will last at least another year. While they deliberated, the railways served notice on them that they could not support two big circuses any longer during wartime. That forced a decision which had been long postponed. As usual the brothers kept their secret until now.

There is much talk of amalgamation.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: B F & P N