The Trainers By Lil' Miss Lixx
As a kid growing up in Maryland, I guess I wanted to do one of two things when I grew up: work with animals, or be a dancer. Who’d have thought that years later I’d be marrying my two passions when I met Hovey Burgess and became one half of The Polar Bare act?
I guess I’ve always been attracted to animals — and sometimes animals have been attracted to me.
I was three or four years old on a trip to a local zoo when a giraffe put its head through the red handlebar of my stroller and lifted me up into the air. I remember having the bejesus scared out of me and my mom screaming all over the place. Then it put me down and started licking around the stroller with its big black tongue.
There’s also another story from my childhood, from a vacation in Florida. One day we were all out in the ocean when suddenly we saw this huge, black blob in the water — around ten feet out, swimming toward us. My mom shouted “SHARK” so everyone was yelling and panicking, and she grabbed me by the neck and started trying to run toward the shore. Running in water ain’t easy. Then the “shark” popped its head out of the water and it turned out to be a manatee mom and her pup, just trying to say hi.
Then there’s the time my mom came to pick me up from the local county fair, and there I was waiting for her with a funnel cake in one hand... and a lizard in a cage in the other. Always living my best life.
At my first ever dance recital — and this is interesting — the theme was circus. I was a circus bear for my first ballet performance! So, looking back, I guess I'm guided by the hand of fate.
Growing up I would be at the dance studio as often as I could. It was the Carroll County Dance Center and I also worked there for my first job in exchange for lessons — answering the phones, teaching the itty bitty kids, all kinds of things. At one point I was taking nearly twenty classes per week. I had a bunch of different teachers but my favorite was Olga who was a complete wackadoodle that I loved. She wore high end designer outfits and would make us hold our splits while she stepped outside to chain-smoke cigarettes.
I came to New York City in 2005 to audition for various dance colleges, including one at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU where Hovey Burgess was teaching Circus Techniques at the time — but our paths didn’t cross yet. I didn’t get in but I did fall in love with the hot guy who played the cello for the ballet auditions (he looked just like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow).
I moved to the city and got a practical degree in Art History at Fordham University and saw my first burlesque show within a year. After that, I enrolled in Jo Weldon's New York School of Burlesque.
By the time I graduated college I was working Off-Off Broadway in a show called This Is Burlesque with the Pontani Sisters, Murray Hill, Dirty Martini and other burlesque stars. I was lucky, because a lot of people put me under their wings and taught me the ropes. I worked my butt off. I’d show up an hour early to bark (helping get people in off the street to see the show), then before showtime I’d work the tables selling merch. Then I’d set up the show as stage manager, before joining Murray at the bar during the show as his sidekick. All of this and also clearing the stage after each act — which I did, night after night, until finally having paid my dues I was given my own spot in the show.
I gigged around the city after that and the more I gigged the more I booked. This led me to the Slipper Room and the Slipper Room led me to Hovey Burgess, the Mr. Coney Island Pageant and the development of the Polar Bare act, which sees me as the trainer and the ol’ guy as the bear.
Which I guess brings me full circle, back to the animals again.
I’ve learned a lot about polar bears and also about the art of training them to perform in the circus. There have been plenty of male trainers, including Carl Hagenbeck, Boris Eder, Adolph Cossmy and so on. But I wanna talk about a few of the amazing women who trained polar bears and presented them in the circus ring. Each of them trailblazers.
“5,000 pounds of husky polar bear answer the beck and call of 100 pounds of femininity, for even the frostbitten heart of a polar bear is susceptible to feminine influence!” cried the press about Mademoiselle Aurora (born Lillian Miller) — the earliest known woman polar bear trainer on record. In one image, said to have been taken in 1898 at Coney Island, we see her posing with five bears in what we can only imagine was the first classic pyramid formation display of the polar bear act. It’s been copied many times since, but I think Mademoiselle Aurora was the first. Aurora said that polar bears need as little exertion as possible outside the ring, in order to perform at their best when they’re in it. I feel the same way about Hovey.
Lilian Daniels was born in Denmark into a traveling family who ran Circus Robert Daniels. It was named for her father, who wasn’t just a juggler and a clown but also specialized in Tanagra theater, a sideshow illusion where living performers appeared as real but tiny figures, through a neat arrangement of concaved mirrors — the effect was that you’d see the performers mirror image 8-10 times reduced. Lilian’s mom would appear too, as a singer. To the audience, they seemed like tiny dolls, like the small Greek figures from Tanagra — hence the name. But no illusions were needed for Lilian’s act, a few years down the line — she’s best remembered for her performing polar bear act, during which, among other tricks, her bears could be seen playing trumpets, as seen very briefly in the Italian circus documentary Il Domatore Racconta (1960) — which, in English, literally means: The Tamer Tells. In 1964, Lilian and her performing polar bears were a major attraction at the Blackpool Tower Circus — one of the UK’s most prestigious circuses. Towards the end of her career she revived the family tradition by opening Circus Lilian Daniels, in Denmark. It was short-lived, but memories of Lilian’s awesome polar bear act live on.
The amazing Doris Arnt (1930-2018) was born Doris Kielbock. Inspired to become an animal trainer by seeing the circus bear act of Edith Crocker, she found her big break In 1954, when she was contracted to Circus Krone, the biggest touring show in Europe, to take over their polar bear act after their trainer had left. It was a huge success. Dressed in a fur-trimmed minidress and ankle boots, she was joined in the ring by her first husband, Alfons Arndt, to perfect the act that made her a household name. Her polar bears performed spectacular tricks: rocking in chairs; balancing on rolling globes and even dancing the waltz. Doris, winner of a 1956 Circus-Oscar, observed complex social behaviour among polar bears — recalling one male protecting an arthritic female bear that the others often bullied. You can see Doris’s polar bears in action in the circus film The Big Show (1961).
Then there’s the spectacular Ursula Böttcher (1927-2010), who became a circus star all over the world. I guess her fate was written in the stars: the name "Ursula" derives from "Ursus", the Latin name for "bear". She’s the classic case of the gal who ran away to join the circus. She saw Circus Busch which was visiting Dresden, her hometown in East Germany and caught the bug right away. She started out as a cleaner, then as an usher, and eventually worked as an assistant animal trainer before becoming a star trainer in her own right, beginning with lions and eventually presenting two leopards, three brown bears, and two polar bears. In 1964, Ursula was given another group of seven polar bears and one brown bear: the foundation for the act that was to make her famous. It already included Alaska, her favorite, who "kissed" her (a trick first performed by the aforementioned Adolph Cossmy) at the end of their act. Two more polar bears were added later, bringing a total of ten animals to the act. In 1976 she flew to the United States to star in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, eventually spending six years with them before returning to Europe. Alongside her beloved Alaska, she was immortalized in a postage stamp — part of a series celebrating the art of circus in her homeland of the former DDR. Her final season was at Circus Busch-Berlin in 1998. At the age of 83, she passed away back where she started: in Dresden.
You probably know by now that in the early '60s Hovey worked with Zero, a polar bear, at the Toledo Zoo Wild Animal Show. The trainer was Cincinnati-born Eloise Berchtold (1936-1978) who trained a number of animals, including big cats, horses and elephants. People say she was one of the best all-round animal trainers of all time. She started early too. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote an article about her as “the 15-year old who keeps a bear, a rabbit, a dog, two raccoons, seven snakes, 30 turtles and a three-and-a-half foot alligator as pets”. Aged 17 she wrote a letter to circus owner Lucio Christiani, who became her first employer. He quickly realized she knew more about animals than most of the trainers he’d ever worked with. She acquired various bears from her ex-husband, John Cunio, and was a glamorous star in her spangled costume and shiny boots with her blonde hair perfectly coiffed. She had a way with animals that even other trainers envied. The producers of the movie-musical Doctor Dolittle (1967) flew her to London, where they were shooting, just to watch her “talk” to the animals. That movie had a happy ending, but sadly Eloise’s story didn’t end quite so happily. She was trampled to death in the ring by one of her bull elephants after she accidentally tripped and fell during a performance in the Gatini Circus in Quebec. When rescuers tried to get into the ring, the agitated elephant wouldn’t let anyone approach her — he just kept guard, roaring and gently nudging her with his trunk. I guess he was trying to protect her. It breaks my heart.
Polar bears are banned from performing in circuses these days, except for in Russia where they appear in the Московский Цирк на Льду (Moscow Circus on Ice). But that doesn’t stop Hovey flying the flag for the polar bear — or me from whipping him into shape onstage. And it’s also kinda nice to be able to add my name to the legacy of incredible women trainers throughout the years.
And FYI. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where I caught the eye of that giraffe all those years ago in my red-handled baby stroller? That aforementioned zoo has two cute female polar bear cubs right now, called Amelia and Neva. Go say hi to them, learn about the polar bears and support the plight of their brothers and sisters north of the Arctic Circle. They’re fascinating creatures and we don’t wanna lose them. And if we save the polar bears that’ll keep Hovey happy too.
I’m just sayin’.
Lil’ Miss Lixx
New York City, December 2020.