copied from Columbus Daily Advocate
Monday, April 27, 1970, pg. 5, col. 1-6


Bandmaster of 'Greatest Show on Earth'

Boyhood Friend Tells True Story
About the Life of Merle Evans


Editor's Note: Many newspaper and magazine articles have been published about Merle Evans during his 50 years as bandmaster for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Merle announced his retirement this spring.

But of all the articles that have been printed none is probably as authentic as the following story of Merle's life written by his friend since boyhood, Ned E. Aitchison, local judge of the Municipal Court, and operator, along with his wife Helen, of the Merle Evans Circus Museum in Columbus. The readers of this article can be assured this is "the true story".

* * *
by Ned Aitchison

Around the late 1800's and early 1900's, John and Elisabeth Evans lived in Columbus, Kansas. To them were born seven fine children, Lela (now deceased) Willard (now deceased) Merle, Homer, Fred, Ruth and Juanita. They were one of the most respected families in Columbus, and all hard workers.

As Merle grew up, he was always busy, he shined shoes at Fletch Crowder's barber shop, worked at Blake's Greenhouse, drove a delivery wagon for Campbell and Bradney's grocery store, had a paper route, was bell hop for the Brooks Hotel, set type for Johnnie Nicholson's print shop on the west side of the square, and drove cows to Mentsler's pasture, at $1.00 a month for each cow. He was always a very busy boy, not a lazy bone in his body. Merle loved baseball, liked to fish on Brush creek, and was always eating pop corn.

During his early days, he would go to the City Hall and fire station, next to the Hammet's Livery stable, on the second floor of the old stone building, and listen to the band practice, as at that time Columbus had one of the best bands in the midwest under the direction of Prof. Kahelski. The band made trips all over the country, and always included the Priest of the Palace Parade, in Kansas City, Mo. with great musicians such as the Bowers Brothers, Bill McGhie, John Nicholson, Harry Hicks, the Reid Brothers (who were later burned to death on a Circus train) Harry C. Strong, Turkey Thomas, Guy Mitchell, Gar Richardson, and many other oldtime musicians. Each Saturday night in the summertime they pulled the old bandwagon to each corner of the town square for a 2-hour concert. Merle was always there to listen. He loved the band.

Bill Bowers later took over the band and also organized a boys band. Merle was the first one to join. They needed an alto horn and he ordered one, but the order was mixed up, and when the horn arrived it was a cornet. Merle would practice every time he had a chance, night or day, and drove the neighborhood crazy. His father made him go to the woodshed and shut the door, but Merle kept practicing, and soon joined the Columbus band, together with Cap and Owl Lemmons, Cecil Huff, Carl Stuckey, and others who joined the boys band. All the boys have nicknames, Merle was given the title of Doc, because he always carried his cornet case.

Joined Circus in 1909

Every year Columbus held the Old Sttlers[sic] Reunion. Thousands would attend, and many families would camp in the city park all week. The largest carnivals in the midwest played this reunion. In 1909 the S. W. Brundage Carnival Co. was the carnival for that year. They had a very fine band, and Merle joined up as a cornet player, at $10.00 per week. Before the season ended Merle was leading the band but during the winter months, he worked at anything he could get, from working in a pool hall, to playing with a Salvation Army band on Thanksgiving day for his dinner.

Merle played with the Cotton Blossom Showboat band, and when a fellow member of the band decided to quit the Showboat and organize a medicine show, Merle joined him in the venture. (He recalled when playing with the medicine show in Missouri, there was a Holy Roller meeting being held there. Merle hid in a ditch near the meeting, and when the preacher said "when Gabriel blows his horn, the world will come to an end," Merle gave a big loud blast on his cornet and everyone at the meeting knocked over their chairs, knocked down the tent, started running and no one was left at the meeting.

Joined Ringling in 1919

In 1919 Merle was offered a position as Band Master of the combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus Band. (The Greatest Show on Earth.) That year John and Charles Ringling ran the show. John was a little skeptical, but during the first performance Merle turned his cornet toward John Ringling's box and about blew John out of his seat. John said "he is a wonder, never heard a better cornet player in my life," and he was convinced Merle was the greatest. Fred Branda was General Equestrian Director. Included in the performance that year were Lillian Loitzel, Bird Millman, The Valdos, The Wrth[sic] Family, Pollens Bears, George Hanneford Family, Edna and Danny Curtis, The Davenports, Jung Brothers, The Charles Siegrist Flying Troop, The Clarkonians Flying Troop all feature Acts, 5 herds of Elephants were carried, under Capt. Bert Patridge, Capt. George Denman, and Capt. Fred Baker, (52 bulls count them) a very beautiful display of living Statues, 3 rings and 4 stages were used, with many other great acts, and ending with Hippodrome and Charlot races. Over 100 clowns were carried that year. Both Helen and I caught the show, and still have the program.

Merle was with Ringling's Barnum and Bailey from 1919 to 1970, with exceptions of about 3 years, at which time they made an orchestra out of a Circus Band, using violins, etc. Merle could not take that, as a Circus Band is Circus, and good Circus Music is part of a Circus. During the time he was not with the Ringling Show, he directed the Bertram Mills band in England, worked for Davenport out of Chicago, made records, and directed bands in colleges, high schools, municipal bands, and was guest conductor for both Army and Navy Bands, at concerts throughout the United States.

Visited Russia in 1963

He always used Circus music. His favorite composer was Karl King, and some of King's music was always used in his concerts. Merle is also a composer of Circus Music. He wrote many fanfares and marches. My favorites are "Symphonia" and "Red Wagons." During a circus performance he sometimes used portions of more than 200 numbers. He has led bands throughout Europe, Canada, South America, Cuba, and every state in the USA. He also conducted a band in Russia as part of the U.S. Dept. Cultural Exchange program in 1963.

Never Forgot Columbus

Merle never forgot his hometown, Columbus, Kansas, and between seasons always visited Columbus. He had a friend named Had Babb, and on his visit home he would take care of Had, making him take his yearly bath, taking him to Tub and Skeet Whitcrafts' barber shop, for an annual hair cut and shave, buy him a new outfit including shoes, sox, underwear, clothing, and cap. They would either go fishing, or hunt rabbits. (Had worshipped Merle).

Merle has received more honors, throughout his life than any bandmaster known. He was called "Toscanini of the Big Top", "Etude" magazine gave him the name of "Will Rogers with a horn". On July 21, 1954, he was made a Colonel by Gov. Lawrence Wetherby of Kentucky. On December 20, 1968, at the Mid-west National Band Clinic, he was honored by being the first person ro[sic] receive the Conn award, and also the Wind and Percussion award from the National Band Assn. of America. He never missed a show, and was never late for a performance. He made more people in more places happy with band music than anyone else in the world. He has received hundreds of awards, Oscars, and medals, more than any bandmaster that ever lived.

On Dec. 17, 1938, Merle's very best friends, Paul Van Pool, and his boyhood friend the late Harold Fields met in Joplin Mo., and formed the Merle Evans Tent number 27, of the Circus Fans of America. Both Paul and Harold with their lovely wifes Evelyn and Gladys, have followed Merle throughout his entire career. Harold and Gladys have traveled thousands of miles to catch the show and visit with Merle, as far as Maryland and Pennsylvania, sometimes staying with the show as long as a week at a time. Paul and Evelyn also traveled many miles to catch the Circus and visit with Merle. Ring number 32 of the Circus Model builders was formed on July 24, 1959, and called Merle Evans Ring, at a gathering at Columbus, by Earl Burnsworth, Johnnie Marietta, LeRoy Redding, David Cash, Reuben Cooper, and Ned Aitchison. Banquets were held in his honor (one at the Columbus hotel where he was a bell hop in the early days) and at Independence, Kansas. Hundreds of his friends attended from throughout the 6 states.

Opened Circus Museum in 1962

In 1933 Ned and Helen Aitchison started building and collecting Circusanna for a future Merle Evans Circus Museum in his hometown. A complete 1/2 inch scale miniature Circus was built. Thousands of lithos, Circus pictures, and programs have been donated together with much Circusanna. Every piece has hand carved. Costumes were made by Helen Aitchison, requiring as long as two weeks to make one elephant blanket or dress one performer. Tents were also made by Helen, Bill Hanks helped with the lighting and animation. Then on Aug. 3, 1962, it was dedicated by the Circus Historical Society, in Columbus, Kansas. Over 1000 people attended the dedication, from every state in the union. A ribbon was cut by Pres. Fred F. Pfening Jr. The Chamber of Commerce furnished pink lemonade. Johnnie Marietta furnished free pop corn from his old time popcorn wagon, built in 1889. Johnnie also furnished two of his callipopes. A 32-piece band played old time Circus Music. The yard was decorated with old time circus banners. Talks were given by Don Smith, founder of the Circus Historical Society, President Fred Pfening, Bette Leonard (Our Kansas Circus Queen), Chappy Fox, head fo the Circus World Museum, Sverro O. Braathen (Our greatest authority of Circus bands and Circus music) Col. Paul Van Pool who brought the C.H.S. Convention to Joplin, Mo., and Columbus Mayor Taylor of Columbs[sic] , and other circus dignitaries, and ended with a banquet at the Brooks Hotel, with Bill Hamlet in charge of the banquet. (Some had never eaten green corn before). The menu included red or pink lemonade, came soup, Merle Evans consomme, Big Top salad (hay sawdust and spangles), choice hippo rump roast, fried giraffe, pickled ostrich eggs, stewed gorilla, choice of two elephant ears, unicorn on the cob, zebra stripes, and stewed monkey glands. Drinks were flook?-um, snake juice, and iced gnu milk. Dessert was snow cones, chacker jacks and cinrcus peanuts. Rollo Stevens and David Graves were chief chefs.

Sarasota, Florida, honored Merle Evans, with Merle Evans Day, which was proclaimed by Mayor of Sarasota, with a large parade, speeches, and a great band concert, directed by Merle and Gov. Docking, ending with a large fireworks display. Many of Merle's Circus friends drove hundreds of miles to be with him that day.

In 1944 Hartford Fire

Yes, Merle has played through catastrophes, mud lots, blowdowns, wrecks, but the worst being the Hartford Fire in July 1944. During the Thursday matinee in which the Big Top caught fire, just as Alford Court finished his cat act, and The Wallendas wire act were ready to go on. A total of 152 people lost their lives, and over 200 were burned and injured. Merle and his band stayed on the band stand, until it was a mass of flames, still playing, which helped to keep down terror, and saved many lives. Some musicians suffered burns, and some instruments were destroyed or damaged.

Another sad day for Merle was when the big show had to close under the tent, in Pittsburgh, Pa., and many of his friends were stranded, without jobs, money, and no place to go. Those who could, pitched in to help those in trouble. The next year the show went out, playing in large arenas, coliseums, ampitheaters, and auditoriums. This move proved very successful, and has been so ever since. Merle has played for all the greatest circus acts that performed with circuses. He directed circus bands with up to 36 musicians. He was with The Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus when they carried 150 clowns, and the Side Show or Freak Show carried as many as 36 freaks and when the show traveled on 3 complete trains with from 1500 to 2500 people, and Merle knew every one of them. He knows thousands of Circus Fans, Circus Historians, and Model Builders from coast to coast. He knew personally all of the great band masters, Karl King, Fred Jewel, Ed Weeckener, Earl Freburger, Jack Phillips, C. L. Brown, Henry Keys, and many others. He very seldom forgot a name and always had a good word for everyone he ever met. He always talked very fast, and had a good story to tell you. The Big One will never be the same without Merle on the bandstand.

Merle and his lovely wife, Nena, will continue to live in Sarasota, Fla. Nena for many years was secretary for John Ringling North, and in recent years paymaster for the Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus. Merle will keep busy. He has many contracts for concert appearances, talks, and will make 5 more albums of good old time circus music.


Learn more about Merle Evans:
Windjammers Center Ring Concert Band
Hartford Circus Fire by R. J. Brown, editor-in-chief; another by Karen Goldberg
Merle Evans: Maestro of the Circus by Gene Plowden. c1971


Tom & Carolyn Ward
Columbus, KS

tcward@columbus-ks.com

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