Clyde Beatty’s circus comes to life on a smaller scale
By John Hackley
Bainbridge, Ohio native Clyde Beatty gained immense notoriety in the early 20th century as an animal trainer and circus impresario. And local business owner Wade Hamilton has reignited the era of Beatty’s heyday by rebuilding a scale model of the renowned Clyde Beatty Circus.
“I always tell people he was the Kardashian of the ‘30s,” said Hamilton, who also operates Samaritan Outreach Services in Hillsboro. “There was nobody bigger in show business in the ‘30s and ‘40s than Clyde Beatty. He had a TV series and he had a weekly radio show. He was in feature-length movies. He was everywhere.”
Eventually, Beatty owned his own circus companies.
Born and raised in Bainbridge, a young Beatty hopped a freight train to Washington Court House where he joined Howe’s Great London Circus as a cage boy cleaning animal cages.
Beatty was enamored with animals, and by the next year he persuaded the powers of the circus to allow him to have an animal act. He began by training a hippopotamus to chase a clown around the ring. Soon after attaining some success with this venture, he was charged with training eight fully grown polar bears.
He became an assistant to lion tamer Pete Taylor and took over the act when Taylor was attacked by a lion and suffered a nervous breakdown.
Beatty became the star of the circus. He succumbed to cancer at 62 in 1965.
Hamilton’s interest in Beatty was spurred about five years ago when he was asked to portray Beatty in the annual Bainbridge Ghost Walk.
“I started doing some research, and I thought ‘I’ll buy this poster to hang behind us when we do the spiel about Clyde Beatty’, and from then on it spiraled out of control,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton eventually amassed a sizeable amount of Clyde Beatty memorabilia. “We had it in a couple different locations, kind of set up like a museum, and I started thinking, ‘It would be cool to have a circus model here,’” he said.
After some online research, Hamilton learned of Tom Persell of Massillon, Ohio who had built a detailed 16-by-40-foot miniature circus. Persell had displayed the model circus at conventions, train shows, and the Circus Hall of Fame when it was located in Sarasota, Florida.
Hamilton connected with Persell’s daughter through Facebook and learned that the model circus had been boxed up for years in her basement. After Persell’s passing early this year, she called Hamilton to let him know she wanted the display to be set up where people could enjoy it.
“So, we rented a 26-foot U-Haul and went and picked up all the boxes and spent about 200 hours trying to figure out how to put it together,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton worked with his business partner, Chris Cunningham, and their friend, Cody Noble, to assemble the model. They constructed a 12-by-24-foot table to display it.
“It was enormous, so we figured out a way to compact it a little bit,” said Hamilton. “We built bookshelves to hold all the extra cars, and we put all the trains in the windows.”
Hamilton said Persell spent about 20 years making the model.
“Well, there were no instructions, and nobody had ever put it together other than him or his family,” said Hamilton. “We had a couple of photos which were very helpful, but other than that, it’s put together like a real circus — there’s nothing fake about it.”
The model is made to a half-inch scale with every half-inch equaling a foot.
Everyone is welcome to view the miniature piece of Bainbridge history at Ancient Valley Mercantile in Bainbridge.