The Circus Comes to Town

Posted on December 17, 2020 • See the rest of our news

By Guest Contributor Kim Bannerman

Here we are, December 2020. What a year it’s been! Elections, pandemics, wildfires, lockdowns — it’s been an absolute circus. So in the spirit of relief and gratitude that 2021 is just around the corner, let’s chat a little bit about a real circus that entertained and amused West Coast communities a century ago. 

After the Great War and the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918, people were desperate for a bit of levity. Roads on Vancouver Island were still dodgy at best — non-existent at worst — and many communities remained fairly isolated from major centers like Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle. But people were craving a fun diversion from the hardships of everyday life, and that’s where Robert W. Buller of Victoria saw glittering opportunity.

“DON’T MISS THIS! Buller’s Trained Animal Show — one day, two shows, at Cumberland BC… BETTER THAN EVER!”

So proclaimed the advertisement in the Cumberland Islander on May 8th, 1920. For the price of admission (75c. for adults, and 25c. for children, with the War Tax generously paid by the show), one could enjoy the delights of this travelling circus, which pitched its tent in a field in Royston. For many Cumberland children, it was their first opportunity to see a circus, and the Cumberland Islander called Buller’s Trained Animal Show “… a dream of Fairyland realized. The hearts of kiddies almost burst with happiness.” As a bonus after the show, every child was entitled to a free pony ride. 

Buller’s Trained Animal Show and Circus was owned by Mr Robert W. Buller, who lived in Victoria and had a large stock ranch in the State of Washington. Originally from Peterborough, Ontario, he had invested heavily in entertainment ventures around the province of BC but, in 1916, he started to prepare his own exhibition with the intent of travelling up and down the coast. After scouting for talent in Eastern Canada and the United States, he established a home base in Victoria and accumulated everything he’d need to plan and promote his own circus: equipment, livestock, experienced animal trainers and performers. He recruited employees from a number of famous circuses, even poaching some from the world-famous Ringling Bros.

“It is really wonderful the way in which (Buller) has taken these dumb animals and, by the use of gentleness and an uncanny power he seems to possess over the lower animals, educated them to do a great many things that one would think impossible.” – The British Colonist, 1919

The whole ensemble travelled by boat, visiting towns and villages between Alaska and Washington. The show contained 100 trained animals, including 3-foot tall ponies, dancing bears, and even a small group of monkeys which would race the ponies around the ring like tiny jockeys. Miss Pearl Barlow’s Educated Dogs were a crowd favourite. The dogs waltzed and rolled barrels, leaped over each other, while Teddy the brindled terrier walked a high wire. Chester, “The Horse with the Human Brain”, solved mathematical problems and answered questions from the audience by tapping his hoof, much to the delight and amusement of the crowds. Two platoons of ponies also performed military drills under the command of Miss Truth Buller, the showman’s daughter. 

“The performance opens with an ensemble number in which over fifty ponies take part in a pedestal act, the ponies being arranged in groups, each of which represents one of the nations engaged in the Great War.” – British Colonist, 1919

But the performances included more than just animal acts. Buller’s circus also boasted aerial artists, acrobats, barrel jumpers, jugglers and iron-jawed performers, “all massed in glittering spangles and cloth of gold“. Buller employed over 100 people and even brought in more established entertainers to headline, such as Harry La Verne, an accomplished clown and jester. When the circus came to Cumberland in May 1920, the show advertised the talents of Monsieur Lazard on the wire; Miss Queenie Barlow, the greatest child contortionist in the world; Raymond Brothers in feats of strength; as well as McMann and Wheiler, the flying ring wonders. During the 1919 season, the circus band had been advertised as ‘Rowland’s Concert Band’, but by the time they came to Cumberland, Robert Buller had rebranded the musicians as ‘Buller’s Returned Soldiers Concert Band’, which perhaps spurred a bit of patriotic pride.   

When he began to build his circus, Buller had the intention of gradually increasing the size of the retinue, with the goal of amassing 350 Shetland ponies and a proportionate cast of actors. Buller also hoped to play on the novelty of miniature acts, using diminutive pieces of equipment and hiring actors of small stature. But despite the success he enjoyed in the early 1920s, the era of the travelling circus was coming to an end, and the expense of shipping so many animals to remote communities must have been prohibitive. By July 1920, Buller began selling his Shetland ponies at auction, with some journalists speculating that he was retiring from the circus business for good. In November of that same year, a Chinese man named Tim was charged with being in unlawful possession of saddlebags and uniform tunics that had come from Buller’s circus; the man claimed he was innocent, and that he’d found the clothes in a vacant lot, thrown out with a bunch of old sacks. 

Tarnished and tired, it looked like the final act of Buller’s Trained Animal Show had come to a close. 

However, there would be one last encore. In 1925, Buller re-opened his show and began holding performances behind the new Crystal Gardens in Victoria. The scale of the exhibition had now expanded to include tight wire walking, clowns, and jazz music. Shows were offered twice daily. 

But even this exuberant huzzah could not last. In 1930, Robert W. Buller went on to purchase and rebuild the Malahat Lookout, which he operated until 1950. After that, he ran a milk bar on View Street until his retirement in 1951. He died in 1963 at the age of 96.  

While he may never have owned as many ponies as he’d hoped, Robert Buller’s Trained Animal Show brought a little bit of magic and wonder to the islands, the BC Mainland, and American coastal cities during the years after the Great War. From their grandiloquent description in the Cumberland Islander, it seems like Cumberland audiences were thrilled to welcome them, and Buller’s dog-and-pony (and monkey) shows made quite a lasting impression.

“The show is beautiful, catering to the amusement-loving public, creating one big happy never-to-be-forgotten day of happiness. Not the largest show on earth, but the best of its size ever promoted.” – Cumberland Islander, 1920

About Kim Bannerman, Guest Contributing Author

When she isn’t tromping through the woods or swimming in the lake, Kim Bannerman writes novels, short stories, podcasts and screenplays from her home in Cumberland, BC. Her work has appeared in anthologies like She’s Shameless (Tightrope Books, 2009), Girl at the End of the World (FoxSpirit Press, 2014), In the Company of Animals (Nimbus Press, 2014), and When Birds Are Near (Cornell University Press, 2020). She is the author of nine novels, including the historical mystery novel Bucket of Blood and the modern fairytale The Tattooed Wolf. Together with her husband Shawn Pigott, she runs Fox&Bee Studio, a video production company based in Cumberland, BC. Follow her adventures at kbannerman.com.