Paul T. Gilbert

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the stories: Snake CharmerArthur Borella, ClownThe Flying WardsReporter in TightsElephant TrainerTight WireDress Rehearsal

Post Reporter Plays Elephant Man at Circus

Trembles in Fear as Huge Hay-eater Towers Over Him in Sawdust Ring

—Paul T. Gilbert, from the Chicago Evening Post, April 17, 1922

"Don't be afraid. Get right up under 'em. Why these elephants have been worked so much they're just like hen-pecked husbands."

Such were my final instructions from James Dooley, elephant trainer at the Sells-Floto circus showing at the Coliseum.

I had volunteered to put the big fellows thru their paces. The act looked easy from the press box. All you had to do was to say "Up" or "Whoa" and fifty tons of elephant responded to your will, thus demonstrating the superiority of mind over matter. If those girls in the red tights could do it, certainly it would not be difficult for me.

I have discovered something, however, and that is that the pretty girls are only parlor ornaments. They may appear to be running the act, but it's the man behind who does the work.

And during my day as an elephant trainer I discovered something else. The job isn't all music and spangles.

Stuffed with Hay.

You go to work at 6 o'clock a.m. You exercise the pachyderms for fifteen minutes in the ring, then feed them hay—a lot of it. They never seem to get quite enough hay, and I imagine that's what they are inside—all hay, like scarecrows. Then you dust them off with a whisk broom and manicure their toenails. Then give them more hay, and shortly after 1 o'clock you must be ready for the grand entry.

This is what the press agent describes as a dream of oriental opulence and splendor. As far as I am concerned, it's a nightmare. You are liable to be bitten by a camel, kicked by a kangaroo, or stepped on by a horse.

I had put on my entry costume, but was rather disappointed in it. I expected to look like one of these comic opera Baltic princes—patent leather boots, scarlet riding breeches and a coat with gold frogs.

Gets Stick Candy Pants.

Instead, they handed me a pair of peppermint candy striped pantaloons, about three sizes too large.

"Are these clown's pants?" I asked.

Mr. Dooley, who was superintending my wardrobe, seemed offended. "No, that is what you wear for the entry," he replied.

The coat was red, but not half red enough, and lacked the gold embroidery. A turban—I selected that myself—with chain mail down the back and sides, completed the outfit.

Thus accoutered, I was put thru a brief rehearsal with Billy Sunday. Billy is not the evangelist, but a reasonably small tusker. At least he looked small from a distance. It was only when he did his "hind leg stand," hovering over you like a big blimp, that you had more respect for his size.

Somebody rolled out a tub and set it bottom up.

"Up, Billy," I said persuasively.

In Bill's Power.

Rather to my surprise, the elephant obeyed. I was congratulating myself on the triumph of mind over matter when something warm and soft and hairy encircled my neck and something that felt like a large clam was pressed against my cheek. I glanced up and saw two wicked little eyes peering into mine. I realized that Bill had me in his power and I began to sympathize with the statue of Laocoon.

"It's all right," Mr. Dooley reassured me. "That's just his way of showing that he likes you. One trainer we had couldn't come near him at all.

The trunk uncurled, and a damp vacuum cleaner began moving up and down my back.

"Don't be afraid," said Mr. Dooley. "Get right under him. Raise up your hook. He'll do his hind leg stand. Make him curl up his trunk more."

"Curl up your trunk, Billy," I said. But the refractory proboscis refused to curl. It kept wandering around my anatomy like an animated suction pump.

Threatens to Flatten Paul.

"Up, Billy," said the trainer, and the docile creature reared. He towered above me, a balanced rock of flesh, threatening to descend at any moment and leave a grease spot on the floor in place of me.

They were now shooing the last of the spectators out of the menagerie. The elephants who but a few moments before had been conveying peanuts to their red, three-cornered mouths, were being transformed into a durbar. An oriental princess rocked gently back and forth from a curtained howdah on the back of Trilby.

I was shoved along thru a crowd of painted clowns—one of them with big, false feet—toward the main entrance. Here I sidestepped to avoid the business end of a trick mule. I caromed into a team of llamas, and, on the rebound, knocked over a Japanese wrestler, who emitted a hissing sound. An ugly camel bared its teeth and made a lunge at me. I noticed that most of the performers avoided both the elephants and camels.

The band struck up "The Sheik," and the oriental pageant was on. I marched with the Bedouin spear carriers.

Finds Self in Ring.

Somehow—it all seems hazy to me now—I found myself in the center ring with Mam, the biggest elephant; Frieda, Trilby, and my little friend, the evangelist.

"Up!" I cried, and the intelligent creatures reared themselves on their hind legs. I raised my head, but could see nothing but elephants, and elephants seen from below look different.

The act proceeded, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it. And I noticed the girls weren't really doing much either. Automatically I waved my elephant hook and made gestures so that the audience would think I was the trainer.

But it was Mr. Dooley that the elephants obeyed. They danced and knelt down and rang bells and played dead, and I was greatly relieved when it was all over. A dozen times I expected to be stepped on and squashed like a worm. When the director's whistle sounded, and the acrobats came in and I heard Mr. Dooley telling me to make my bow, I felt as one who has escaped sudden death.

Elephant training is not as easy as it looks.