Circus performers re-live their flying days

Visitors at the Kaley Circus Reunion look over memorabilia from the high school circus performances of the 1940s and 1950s. In the foreground are flaming clubs used in the "American Indian Fire Dance"

From 1947 to 1959 in Greencastle, the circus came to town every year-only this was no ordinary circus. This one featured  Greencastle High School students performing on the trapeze, high bars, trampoline, and in various dances and tumbling acts. Clowns, a circus band,  and a queen and her court rounded out the entetainment.

According to Janice Warren Bartles, who performed in the circus in the early 1950s, the whole town turned out to see the circus, which was the brainchild of Physical Education teacher Fred Kaley. “We had a gym team,” Bartles explained, adding that most of that team, and other students who tried out, performed in the circus.

On Wednesday morning, August 4  during Old Home Week, former students who participated in or watched  the Kaley Circus, as it was called, got together at Otterbein United Brethren Church on Leitersburg  Road  for a reunion. Held in the church's social room, former students pored over Kaley Circus memorabilia  while a slide show overhead displayed pictures of the student acrobats, and circus music played in the background.

Bartles, who has two sisters and five brothers, said every one of her siblings participated in the circus except the oldest and youngest, who were not in high school during the time it ran. Everyone in the high school could be involved in producing the circus, she explained. “The commercial club was in charge of programs, band members played in the circus band, and the FHA ran the concession stand.”

 During the Old Home Week of 1956 the circus performed at Jerome King Park, but in other years the circus was held at the high school. Admission was 50 cents, and the whole town turned out to see the show. “It ran for three nights  in one week and was packed every night,” Bartles said.

Most years the circus involved about 40 people in 12 acts.  And while there were no major mishaps, there were a few injuries. “My brother Donald fell off a trampoline and hurt his back,” Bartles noted. “We did have a few injuries, but no one ever sued.”

Even Kaley himself was a circus performer, Bartles' brother Wayne Warren added. “The first year Mr. Kaley was one of the clowns,”  he said. “And another year, Mr. Kaley fell through the springs on the trampoline — he was too close to the edge and fell through. He cut up his leg but we continued on with the show.”

Kaley even brought in professional circus performers to inspire his students. “Billy Barton was a famous aerialist who came as a technical advisor,” explained former student Eddie Smith. “He was a good friend of Mr. Kaley.”

As  former students pored over photographs of themselves in the circus and shared fond memories,  there was a lot of good-natured laughter and shared memories of a golden time in local history. Gazing at the tables of memorabilia, Jim Stenger chuckled, “See these pictures?” he asked, pointing to photos of himself as a student doing handstands and aerial acts. “I'm upside-down in every one.”