Pryor woman’s job under the big top.
Down the long hallway of Colonial Terrace Care Center, Minnie Burns rests comfortably in her recliner while taking a breathing treatment.
Just two weeks shy of her 78th birthday, it’s hard to imagine that the sweet lady behind the treatment mask used to dangle by her feet from a swinging ladder, but that’s exactly what she did.
In her early 20s, Minnie worked for the Hagen Brothers Circus Company.
“I used to ride in the Speck,” she said. “That’s circus talk for the opening parade.”
For five years Minnie and her husband at the time, George Paul, traveled from Hugo to the
Great Lakes and back, working
with the group.
“I rode horses and an occasional elephant during the opening parade,” she said.
The couple’s entry into circus life began when they befriended former neighbors.
“We had some neighbors who were home for the winter and during that time we got acquainted with them,” she said. “We would meet them for coffee and breakfast and spent alot of time with them.”
The neighbors were both employees of the Hagen Brothers Circus and before long, George and Minnie were too.
Minnie was one of three women who performed on swinging ladders, dazzling audiences with their costumes and their tricks.
“The ladder had about six rungs and was suspended from the top of the big tent,” she explained. Rigging and long ropes held the ladder just out of reach of the girls, who were given a boost to grab the lowest rung.
While the ladder swung, Minnie would perform acrobatic tricks such as grabbing separate rungs and pushing her body out horizontally from the ladder.
“I’d climb to the top rung where there was a loop and I’d put my foot through it,” she said. Minnie would place her other foot on a lower rung and let go, hanging by her feet with her hands free. And all the while the ladder swung, thrilling audiences.
“We just did tricks ... something flashy,” she said. “Had to be flashy.”
Her husband, George, worked as head prop man for the circus.
“He oversaw all of the prop crew and made sure everything was where it was supposed to be and the rigs were hung properly,” she said. “He caught someone one night. She was doing her routine on the trapeze rope, I think.
I can’t remember. Anyway, one end of the rope slipped, but he caught her.”
Minnie never had a close call during her time with the circus, but said she had plenty of spills when she first started practicing at home.
“We were all very careful,” she said.
Each family had their own travel trailer or motor home and when they weren’t performing, they were traveling to the next location. Though she can’t recall how much money she made working for the circus, she does remember that she did earn a little extra for being the “gas girl.”
The circus paid for the fuel of all of the cars in the caravan and advance arrangements were usually made to fuel them all.
“I would direct the gas man to all of the vehicles that needed fuel,” she said.
When the convoy of circus fun arrived at their destination, the “cook shack” would already be set up and ready.
“They would have coffee and donuts or something ready for everybody,” Minnie remembered. “The cook shack was the first one there and the first one to leave.”
During mealtimes, the “working people” would sit at one table and the performers at another.
“It wasn’t uncomfortable,” she said. “It was just an unspoken word that that’s the way things were.”
Minnie said she, along with all of the other employees, would play multiple roles during the night’s performance. One such skit had Minnie in the audience, while the Master of Ceremonies would play his guitar and sing.
“I would heckle him at bit,” she said. “I’d holler down at him and say ‘Hey, what’s going on down there?’”
He would answer by asking the same question of her, then inform her he was about to sing a song. He would chastise her about interrupting his show and the banter would continue until he finally brought her onstage with him and they would both sing.
Minnie said her reason for leaving the circus was simple.
“I had babies,” she said with a chuckle. The parents of daughter, Marcella, and later their son, Dan, brought the children along until their son was about two years old.
“The cook or sometimes the laundry girl would watch them in the trailer while I was performing,” she said. “I remember that my daughter celebrated her third birthday in the center ring between performances.”
A dream birthday for any three-year old, complete with a big top tent and an entire circus on hand for the party.
“She says she remembers that,” Minnie said.
The trip back through her circus life brought a tear or two to her eyes. But it was no doubt that as she played the video of her life through her mind, it was indeed the greatest show on earth to Minnie Burns.