By A. Morton Smith, Hobbies, December, 1947, pp. 22, 25.
The dog and pony show which flourished from the early 90′s to the 20′s, was closely akin to the circus. It was an exhibition of skill in domestic animal training which delighted the youngsters. It was presented in a ring under a big top and offered a street parade in traditional circus fashion.
Some of the best known circus owners and managers of later years were graduates of the dog and pony shows, and some of the latter exhibitions were converted into full-fledged circuses as they flourished and expanded.
This type of entertainment was advertised in typical circus style with lithographed pictorial posters, heralds and couriers widely distributed, pieces that are now prized possessions of many collectors of circusiana.
The dog and pony show appears to have entered the amusement field in the early 80′s. The oldest to our knowledge is Morris’ Equine and Canine Paradoxes, which was on tour in 1883, while Hurlburt’s Dog and Pony show was a similar attraction in the late 80′s.
But this type of show came into its own principally as the result of the activities of an astute and aggressive showman’s development of the highest type of dog and pony exhibition, which became exceedingly popular in the 90′s and made his name a household word the country over.
He was Henry B. Gentry, who quit school in 1886 at the age of 17 to join Professor Morris, self-styled “world’s greatest trained animal showman,” and from him, Gentry learned the art of domestic animal training. After a few years, he picked up a troupe of dogs from the streets of his home town, Bloomington, Ind., and upon training them, made his debut in the Bloomington opera house.
Impressed with the enthusiastic manner in which his efforts to entertain were received, Gentry began his career with Prof. Gentry’s Famous Dog and Pony Show, which he operated so successfully that by 1897, it was traveling on 14 cars.
Then in 1898, there were two Gentry shows on the road and by 1901 there were four, with Gentry’s three brothers, Walter, Will and Frank as managers.
The Gentry shows followed much the same pattern. There were military ponies, the Schneider dog family, the monkey fire department, a dog that walked a high wire, a high diving simian, the monkey horse doctor, and trained pigs and goats. As the shows grew, trained elephants were added.
But only animal actors, assisted by trainers took part in the performance. The show parades were marked by small, pony-drawn wagons in which dogs rode on pedestals, and monkeys manned fire wagons and Roman chariots. Because the performances were presented in one ring, the shows could set up on comparatively small lots which were then often available in the hearts of the business sections of metropolitan areas. Therefore, the Gentry shows invaded the largest cities in the land, exhibiting on as many as a dozen lots in scattered sections over a period of several weeks, and while doing so, garnering much favorable comment from the press.
Gentry advertised his show as “the only moral exhibition in the world under canvas. An educational festival patronized and endorsed by the elite of the land.”
Through 1906, there were two or more Gentry shows on the road, and thereafter the single show was expanded until it was a full-fledged circus that was directed by its founder until 1916, when he retired from business.
But retirement was short, for H. B. Gentry accepted the management of the Sells-Floto circus and was owner of Sparks circus for a brief period, before he revived his original dog and pony show in 1931, traveling on 14 trucks.
Associated with him were his son, Robert, and his remaining brother, Frank, and he gathered together a staff that included several executives who worked for him back in the heyday of the Gentry regime. But the resurrection was ill-timed, coming as it did as the country was sinking deep into the throes of the depression and in 1934, the show disbanded.
Among the dog and pony show owners who became later prominently identified with the circus was Andrew Downie. He started his show in 1891 traveling by wagons and in 1892 his dog and pony show moved by boat. He operated the Walter L. Main railroad circus for seven years and in 1926, established Downie Brothers motorized circus which was operated until 1939. Leon Washburn, who had a dog and pony show in 1902, was engaged in the circus business before and after that venture. And George Sipe, who was owner and operator of Sipe, Dolan and Blake’s Dog and Pony show, which was absorbed by the Gentrys, had Sipe’s New Modern Circus on the road in later years.
There were a few prominent dog and pony shows in the 90′s, but it was at the turn of the century, when the Gentry name was prominent throughout the outdoor show world, that dog and pony shows sprang up on every side. One of the larger attractions was the Otto Floto show, started in Denver, Colorado, in 1902 by Tammen and Bonfils, publishers of the Denver Post, as a 10-car enterprise.
Other dog and pony shows en route that season include Miller, Fuller, Howard and Blake; C. E. Cannon, Craft’s, W. W. Cole’s, Darling’s Dashing’s Rice’s, Hall and Long’s, and Hough and Houston, as well as Sipe, Dolan and Blake and Washburn’s.
Some of these shows were only two-car railroad outfits, some were wagon caravans, with as few as five wagons carrying the entire show. None equalled the Gentry aggregation in size or prestige.
As the Gentrys went into the circus field, leaving the dog and pony realm to lesser lights, there were new titles coined every season. By 1913, the dog and pony show roster included Capt. J. G. Irwin’s, Mead’s, Perrine’s, Alderfer’s J. H. Boyer’s, Morrow Bros., Fowler and Clark’s, LeClair’s, Deuel’s, H. W. Freed’s, Stone’s, Richard Brothers’, E. P. Barlow’s and DeVaux’s.
Some of these shows were operated by showmen who had previously had Uncle Tom’s Cabin, minstrels and other tented enterprises on the road. With tents, seats and rolling stock available, it was not difficult to hire animal trainers and invest in a few dogs and ponies, with the result that these attractions were quickly started, and in many cases, as quickly liquidated.
By the 20′s, dog and pony shows were few and far between. Among the titles recalled during that decade are Meyers Brothers, Robinson and Schindler’s and Benbar Brothers.
Not since the demise of H. B. Gentry’s second excursion into the dog and pony field, do we recall such an attraction having toured the country, although it might be assumed small troupes of dog and pony actors are still active in the outdoor amusement field, perhaps operating under dog and pony titles, but confining their engagements to small areas.
It is safe to say, however, that the dog and pony show which flourished many years, has gone the way of the circus parade and the wildest show, leaving only collection pieces in circus enthusiasts’ possession to arouse memories of those interesting little exhibitions of animal intelligence and training.