Elephants On The Stage
Updated: Nov 15
Human acrobats embraced the challenge of using bicycles onstage and trained animals soon followed.
Many of us know that Elephants once performed in circus rings across the world. But did you know they also often performed in theatres? A few had the misfortune to fall through the wooden stages if the boards and underlying structures weren’t checked for strength in advance. Some theatres had various traps and doors in the stage floor which could be hazardous if they weren’t flush with the boards or lifts and mechanisms beneath were malfunctioning.
Lockhart’s Elephants Cardiff
In May 1895 Lockhart’s Elephants performed at the now demolished Empire Theatre on Queen Street in the heart of Cardiff. They toured other venues dotted around the country. Each theatre would need sizeable doors and loading bay to enable these noble beasts to be lead backstage. This particular stage was solid and The Western Daily Mail described part of the act stating that the elephants have an ‘..intelligence, quickness, and humour that almost lift them out of the category of lower animals. They dance jing-a-rings and waltzes, with trunks gripping tails, they sit up gravely on their hind quarters, they stand on their heads or on their hind legs, poise upon barrels, and execute many quaint postures which certainly would not occur to the elephant in its natural state. The smallest of the three-which is also the cleverest-mounts a tricycle, standing firm on her hind legs, pedalling with her right, and, most wonderful of all, steering herself by a bar which she grips with her trunk. On this machine she careers-as jauntily as an elephant may–around the stage,..’ 1
Accidents In Europe And America
Some theatres such as The Bristol Hippodrome had been designed for spectacular heavyweight shows with vast tanks of water or battle re-enactments featuring real horses, others obviously had less sturdy stages and in 1904 the rear legs of a huge ‘cake-walking’ elephant ‘disappeared through the stage boards’ of the Empire Theatre, Leeds ‘causing consternation amongst some performing dogs that were waiting below.’2 The poor elephant was fine and continued the show.
In June 1927 one unfortunate creature may not have been so lucky as the stage of a theatre in Madrid collapsed and the elephant plunged into the basement below. There are no further reports of the animals rescue or condition.
Myrtle the elephant was dancing on stage in 1939 at a Cincinnati theatre when she plunged through the boards into the cellar. The show must go on as they say and the performance continued as a group of ‘carpenters and stage hands rescued an uninjured Myrtle from the debris below.’
Again the show continued at the Beziers Theatre des Varieties in Paris in January 1908. When ‘..the bandmaster offered a young elephant a titbit, and the greedy pachyderm leaned too far over the edge and fell’ into the orchestra pit this time. Apparently only the instruments were damaged and the musicians escaped unharmed. The elephant was helped up ‘from his awkward position, ascended an improvised gangway and continued the performance.’3
Once more in Paris, this time at a theatre in Roubaix in 1912 at a performance of ‘Round The World In Eighty Days’. An elephant fell through the stage ‘trumpeting madly’ whilst the panicked audience ran to the exits. ‘The fire brigade rescued the elephant’4 and after some strengthening repairs to the stage once again the the play continued. There is no mention of how many of the audience members returned.
Accidents, mishaps and ill treatment of elephants and other animals onstage and in the circus serve to remind us that wild animals are not suited to ‘taming’ and confined conditions. And although many circuses voluntarily stoped featuring animals in their shows many years ago ‘The first circus legislation to stop performing animals was discussed in Parliament in 1965. However, it wasn’t until 53 years later, in 2018, that Scotland finally adopted the first ban on wild animals, followed by England in January 2020 and finally Wales.’ 5
The UK Government guidance on The Wild Animals In Circuses Act 2019 can be found here There are exceptions to the rules that include TV and film performances and Zoos. I’ll leave you with the seasonal thought that festive reindeer displays are also exempt from the legislation. The Government don’t specify any particular festival and I think we may guess that Santa and Lapland are likely to be involved!
Sources & Further Reading
There is a short film from 1889 showing one elephantine member of the troupe beating a drum with its tail. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0242610/
‘Elephant Circle’ by Nicholas Dimbleby. Jephson Gardens, Royal Leamington Spa home of the Lockhart circus family. Photo©HDTweed
Article about Sam Lockhart from Leamington History Group https://leamingtonhistory.co.uk/sam-lockhart-elephant-trainer-extraordinaire/
Western Daily News - May 1895 Nottingham Evening Post – Wednesday 29 June 1904 Manchester Evening News – Saturday 07 October 1939 Ottawa Free Press – Wednesday 08 January 1908 Daily Mirror – Monday 18 November 1912