Image the reaction of farm children when they heard the circus was in town, interrupting the normally quiet rural life with the sound of trumpets and calliope. Exotically-costumed performers, animals, clowns, puppet shows, live music. It was the type of mind-blowing excitement that made one watch the minutes tick by on the school clock until the day was over.
Clarence Nishizu, a Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission congregant, recalled the few amusements available to those growing up in farm country during his 1981 oral history interview. He described an annual picnic for area families at an area known as Santiago Beach, an open beach at the ocean end of Bushard Street in southeast Huntington Beach.
The Furuta family children and others in the Wintersburg peatlands and rural Orange County usually created their own entertainment. (Photo circa 1915-1918, Wintersburg's Cole Ranch at present day Warner and Gothard Avenues, courtesy of the Furuta family)
Now and then, they were treated to movies held at a large chili pepper warehouse in the Stanton area.
"They didn't have any talkies," remembered Nishizu. "But they had silent movies and they had a person called a 'benshi' who would stand in front on the side of the screen and while the picture was showing he would simulate the words spoken by the different characters in the movies. They had this maybe once, or even twice, a month."
The circus, however, marched right down Wintersburg Avenue (Warner Avenue) to announce they were in town before returning to their circus camp in Talbert (present-day Fountain Valley). Undoubtedly, a trail of children followed.
Circo Escalante Hermanos was founded in 1909--the same year Huntington Beach incorporated--and toured Mexico, the southwest United States and Europe. (Image, circushistory.org)
The Escalante Brothers Circus
Bandwagon writer Bob Taber about "The Escalante Circus From Mexico" in their January - February 1961 issue. At the time of the article, the original founding brothers--Mariano, Pedro and Marcus--were retired and living in Los Angeles.
Originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, the circus "moved via ox-cart across the trail-like roads of Mexico" and crossed into Texas to perform. With the Mexican Revolution in full force, they began performing more often in the United States. Every family member was involved in circus performances and sewed their own tents and costumes.
Right: Lorena Escalante, wife of Henry "Blackie" Escalante, the grandson of Mariano.
The Escalante Brothers Circus advertised jugglers, trapeze acts, comic singers, gymnists, dancers, contortionists, tight wire acts, a trained bear, musical burro, clowns, "educated" ponies, and "the only singing coyote in the world."
The Circus continued through the Great Depression, until municipal fees and regulations made it more difficult to be profitable. However, like those in Wintersburg, the Escalante family made a success of their life in California and their descendants continue to live here today.
Left: The historical marker at the intersection of Talbert Avenue and Bushard Street in present-day Fountain Valley notes the circus parade went to Wintersburg.*
Notable acts with the Escalante Brothers Circus included actor Eddie Albert of television show Green Acres fame and Henry "Blackie" Escalante, who also went on to film and television.
Prior to World War II, and before his film career, Albert had toured Mexico as a clown and high-wire artist with the Escalante Brothers Circus. His official biographies state he secretly worked for U.S. Army intelligence, reportedly photographing German U-boats in Mexican harbors.
Right: Actor Eddie Albert got an early start with the Escalante Brothers Circus.
Henry "Blackie" Escalante, the grandson of Circus founder Mariano Escalante, performed with the circus as an aerialist before working for more than 40 years as an actor and stuntman, including doubling for Johnny Weissmuller in the "Tarzan" films. His work also included "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954), in which he played Chico, one of the boat crewmen, stunt work on "The Conqueror" (1956), "The Ten Commandments" (1956) and "Paint Your Wagon" (1969).
Left: Henry "Blackie" Escalante became a well-known actor and stuntman in Hollywood.
Beginning in the 1960s, Escalante appeared in episodes of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," "Mission: Impossible" and "Hart to Hart." His final TV appearance was in an 1983 episode of "The Fall Guy."
By the mid to late 1940s, the small circuses that once brought such excitement to rural California began to fade from existence, although the public still wanted to see them.
A December 11, 1943 issue of Billboard reports, "The Escalante Circus, which has not been on road (in the U.S.) since 1938, opened November 4 for a six-day run in East Los Angeles..." The Escalante Brothers Circus also performed in Orange County, "at capacity" in Santa Ana for nine days" and on to Anaheim and La Habra, before heading south. Their big top was a 100-foot roundtop" with "an eight-piece band...Business here was big and on several days many were turned away."
A circus parade in neighboring Santa Ana, California, circa September 1910. (Photo, Orange County Historical Society)
*Editor's note: The historical marker for the Escalante Circus site is at 33° 42.093′ N, 117° 57.75′ W, in Fountain Valley, California, at the intersection of Talbert Avenue and Bushard Street, on the right when traveling east on Talbert Avenue.
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