Circus bygone

Bygone Performing Poodles

Early in the 18th century "there was a showman, Crawley by name, who performed in London and out of it, with a troup of poodles highly to the satisfaction of the curious at that time. 'The Ball of Little Dogs' he called his exhibition; the dogs he said came from Louvain...and had performed before Queen Anne, greatly to Her Majesty's delight. These dogs danced, two of them, with the grandiloquent titles of Marquis of Gaillerdain and Madame de Poncette, showing extraordinary training by the manner in which their movements kept time and cadence with the music which accompanied them," wrote Rawdon B. Lee in A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland (non-sporting division) (London: Harold Cox, 1894), p. 171.

"When Sadlers Wells was a more fashionable place of amusement than is the case now," Lee continued, "at the beginning of this century [19th], much interest was taken in some performing poodles, one of which, dressed as a lady, was carried by two other dogs and seated at a table where a banquet was supposed to be spread, of which the 'lady dog' and some others partook, their attendant waiters being canines of less aristocratic appearance. This same body of dogs concluded their performance in the part of soldiers, first attacking and then taking a toy fort by storm. This company is said to have consisted of about eighty animals, most of them small poodles, the remainder little spaniels.

"However, all these feats are not one tithe better than may be seen at our shows and exhibitions at the present time [1890s]. I have seen a poodle turn a double somersalt, others turn somersalts either backwards or sideways at the will of their trainers; they can still 'take a hand' both at cards and dominoes, and their tight-rope walking on the hind legs, or on all-fours with a monkey on their backs, and their steeplechases with monkey riders, are certainly ahead of anything in the way of poodle training presented before the public in olden times. Only the other day I saw two little poodles on the stage at Westminister Aquarium that gave an excellent bout at boxing, standing on their hind legs, the gloves being placed on their fore paws, and sparring and striking each other in the face and neck with as much pugnacity as two bipeds might display. As I write, I should say there are now in 1893, at least half-a-dozen troupes of performing dogs in the metropolis, and each contains several poodles." Ibid. pp. 171-3

Munito ("the learned dog"--see headpiece, ca 1814) was a Standard Poodle whose Italian master toured with him and an educated goat, and he performed for all levels of society; he played dominoes and chess, counted, read, and wrote. After the performance, his master hired a carriage for the goat and the dog, and Munito sat near the driver, barking. (Paul-Marc Henry, Poodlestan: A Poodle's Eye View of History, NY: Reynal, 1965, pp. 14-7.)

In 1830, a pair of Poodles trained in Milan were exhibited in Paris. For a description of their act (in the Clever Hans tradition), and also that of a troupe of dogs including Poodles in London around 1834, see Edward Jesse, Anecdotes of Dogs (London: George Bell & Sons, 1884).

In 1848 in Berlin, a dancing Poodle named Pollux: "Montag, 14.02.1848....H. Schreyer's Affentheater. Der Steyerische Nationaltanz, ausgeführt von dem in Berlin dressirten Pudel Pollux [Zum Erstenmale]. Anfang: 2-:00." See: "Hunderttausend Thaler" -- Öffentliche Vergnügungen in Berlin 1848, Zusammengestellt von Paul S. Ulrich. Speilplan im Februar 1848." A copy or reconstruction of a theatre schedule for the time period. Here's a bit of (very primitive) help with translation: äffen is (v/t.) ape; mock; nationaltanz is a national dance (folk dance?); in Berlin dressirten Pudel Pollux is a Poodle named Pollux trained in Berlin. Interesting to explore that theatre schedule: Berlin had at least two circuses, the Circus von Alessandro Guerra, and the Olympischer Circus von E. Renz; the program notes for neither circus specifically mentions Poodles.

The celebrated dog-trainer of the second half of the 19th century, General Hutchinson, remarked: "It is hard to imagine what it would be impossible to teach a dog, did the attainment of the required accomplishment sufficiently recompense the instructor's trouble. Most of us have heard of the celebrated dog 'Munito', who, at some private signal from his master, quite imperceptable to the spectator, would select from a pack of outspread cards that which the spectator had named to the master in a whisper, or merely written on a piece of paper." General W. N. Hutchinson, Dog Breaking: the Most Expeditious, Certain, and Easy Method Whether Great Excellence or Only Mediocrity Be Required With Odds and Ends for Those Who Love the Dog and Gun (London: John Murray, 1909; first published, 1848; 10th edition mentioned in introduction to the 1909 edition: this masterpiece has a hefty bibliographial history), p. 237.

Hutchinson continues: "You may have seen the account of the marvellous tricks which Monsieur Leonard, by kindness and perserverance, taught his dogs Philax and Brac. That a dog could be tutored into playing as good a game of dominoes as a man, may sound preposterously unreasonable, but the respectability of the writer compels us to give credence to the recital...." to which paragraph (434) he attaches this illustration of Domini and "Dominos"; and follows with his own observations of a troupe of dogs performing on the street, according to immemorial tradition.

Munito had many imitators, among them "the scientific bitch" (who could read and count, tell time, and describe colours); the immortal Signor Corvi used Poodles in his show in the park of St. Cloud in 1850; in 1860, Bianca (a Poodle) amazed with her ability to translate and to write in 19 languages. (Henry, pp. 17-8.)

Lydia Hopkins remembered when a child in Paris (1891) enjoying trained Poodles at the Nouveau Cirque (unfortunately, copyright restrictions prohibit direct quotation of her full account). These were all white dogs, but not all small: Jojo and Toto were large white Standards clipped in a fantastic fashion with long tails each sporting six pompoms. The act included ballroom scenes in which the dogs danced around, also "spirited battle scenes" in which red-coated Poodles defended a fort from green-coated Poodles. Her favorite was a fire act in which a building burst into flames. Poodles in night-dress were rescued by poodle firemen in red coats aided by a small fire engine. "The little dogs ran off the stage in a very happy way and seemed to enjoy their acts, so that the children in the audience felt happy with them." See: Lydia Hopkins, The Complete Poodle, 3rd edition (NY: Howell, 1962), pp. 286-7.

Here's a children's "circus panorama" from the same period: Father Tuck's World's Circus Panorama with movable pictures ("Originally published by Raphael Tuck & Sons of London, circa 1900" copyright 1998 B. Shackman & Co., Inc., 11 East 26th St., N.Y., N.Y. 10010; No. 7652; Printed in Hong Kong.) "Here you have a spendid Circus....In the will find fourteen models [cardboard cutouts] of the various clever performers who are to amuse....Now stand up the Panorama [four linked cardboard panels] and insert these model groups...into the slots which are marked with numbers....5. Clown with Poodle....10. Monkey riding Poodle....[a third Poodle 'sits pretty' inside a hoop lying on the ground]."

"The Inimitable Dick" was a black Poodle (three feet high when he stood on his hind legs) trained and handled by "the eccentric clowness," Miss Doré, who was herself a pupil of the famous Hachet-Souplet. Dick's act was followed by a display of strength by another Poodle, Hercules. Hachet-Souplet describes another of Miss Doré's Poodles, who would follow the merest twinkle of an eye, and who could perform incredible feats of balance. (Henry, p. 21.)

A similar act was put on by Linn's Famous Educated Dogs; these postcards are four of a series of six and are copyrighted 1907.

In the 20th century, Rols (from Darmstadt) was taught to tell true notes from false, and, with his owner, Friedrich Schwartz, attended the opera, where he uttered a muted bark upon hearing a false note. Rolla sang the Lorelei with Rev. Treiber, her partner. M. Habeneck, director of the Paris Opera, taught his Poodle to sing Mozart in chorus with other Poodles. (Henry, pp. 21-2.)

"Since working dogs in the wider sense are those who are financially useful to their owners, one must count among them those which circuses and variety shosw use to display their tricks and training. The real value represented by such animals is possibly the highest a dog can have. The well-known counting and calculating Poodle, "Professor Weiss," supported--by means of his astonishing eye-training--a family of four for more than 15 years. Clever trainers which present popular performances can command ministerial salaries. Even though many trainers prefer smaller short-haired breeds like Fox Terriers or Pincers because of smaller transportation and maintenance cost as well as less coat-care, others are not deterred by these factors and use Poodles either mainly or exclusively, realizing that Poodles, because of their great intelligence and unusual appearance, are particularly suited for these types of performances.

"An outstanding example of this training was Mr. Charles Prelle whose troupe performed in the Old as well as the New World, and consisted of more than 12 Poodles. These were often made to look like miniature ponies ridden by jockeys or Indians carved out of wood, or harnessed to Roman chariots to perform races. Addidionally, Mr. Prelle, who was an accomplished ventriloquist, had a show of 'talking dogs.' Poodles dressed as ladies--gentlemen--children--a dunce--talk and even sing, meanwhile staying on their hind legs during the entire act.

"There are those who maintain that pure-bred dogs are less suitable for training than are mongrels, but this does not apply to the Poodle. All of Prelle's dogs as well as those of all other trainers were pure-bred Poodles." Summary/translation of part chapter "The Utility Poodle", Der Deutsche Pudel (Munich: 1907), HB, 9/'97.

We've grouped apparently-likely but ultimately less fruitful sources in an attachment: More reading about circuses, fairs, music hall and street performances.

Mismoune and her Poodle dog act

Mismoune's was reputed to be Ed Sullivan's favorite canine act in the 1950's. One publicity photo shows her with six (black?) Standard Poodles, another shows a dog playing the piano, a third shows an SP standing (rolling forward?) on an enormous ball covered with a net (for purchase?). Unfortunately, we lack additional information, though we'd be delighted to amplify this item.

Miss Anna's pink Poodles

Miss Anna performed with her pink Poodles in the 107th edition (1978) of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus.

The Six Orellys

See: Caitlin Rivers, "Six Orellys" ("The Bark" Winter 2004--see "[Article] about a troupe of acrobats called The Six Orellys whose act included two standard Poodles named Erni and Lord. They performed at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey circus and the Cirque Medrano in Paris, among other places. The author of the article found a photo album on eBay that documented in great detail the Orellys' lives, private and public and of course including the poodles. There are some really great pics (they started performing in the U.S. in 1927) and the article is fascinating." (KB, 11/04).

Circuses, Gypsies, and Poodles' length of leg

Dorothy Macdonald, in her fascinating Poodles: past, present & future, Poodle Club of America Foundation Seminar, 1997 (videotape available for purchase from credits Poodles' greater length of leg (relative to other retrievers) to performance work in relation to Gypsies and the circus. We haven't been able to find a link between Gypsies and Poodles. In case you are interested in specifically Romany history, here is a progress report relative to our effort to support her specific supposition. However, Dorothy MacDonald may be using the term loosely to include itinerants from any/every social background: there's a relative abundance of references to support the latter.

Canine Horizons

Charlene Dunlap, film producer, film trainer, and several-Poodle owner, on her website Canine Horizons, correctly reasons, in the section of her website which deals with Historical Poodle Function that "while some people are reviving one of the 'original functions' of the Poodle and finding some success with their dogs in field hunting trials, others are following a different path of historical Poodle function....performing with ... [itinerant entertainers], circuses, or in other kinds of public entertainment [in order to do which] Poodles had to be more appealing than the average dog because their 'function' as performaers depended on their ability to attract spectators. The Poodle had to be intelligent and agile enough to master and perform the most complicated and difficult tricks. While some other breeds of dogs could also perform these feats, it was the Poodle's striking appearance and whimisal nature that made him such a charismatic entertainer." This point is very well taken: all the traditional functions which the Poodle "was bred to do" are essential to breed integrity.

Of related interest: Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, The English Circus and Fairground, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1947). 212 pp. First edition published 1936.

Here's a likely source: Pinguet, O., Animaux et spectacle à travers l'histoire (doctoral thesis, veterinary medicine, Lyon, France, 1996), 115 pp. Call number: T.018978 envl.-bibliotheque. To find this reference on line, search for cirque.

For references to images of longago "circus star" Poodles, see: "...Visuals": Knaus, Steen and Wootton.

The headpiece for this section, "Poodles and Whippet -- Group of Mr. Walton's Performing Dogs", is a full page illustration (wood engraving, 9"x7") from J. H. Walsh's The Dogs of the British Islands (London: 'The Field', 1878).

Go back to Circus...