Charlie Smith was born in Pleasant Hill, Illinois on July 5, 1915. Of course we celebrate his birthday on July 4th. It just seems more appropriate to do so with all the fireworks!
It was actually Charlie’s brother Harold that got him involved in the business. Harold, who played the drums, was hired by the Princess Iola Vanity Fair in 1931. Charlie would go visit his brother and soon became fascinated with show business. The show was managed by Ben Davenport who was to become one of Charlie’s best friends. He told Charlie that he would give him a job only after he finished high school. Charlie went on to finish school and in 1934 joined the traveling Vaudeville show and quickly began to learn his way around the business.
1935 was a year of firsts for Charlie. He married his first wife Virginia (who was a performer) and signed on to tour with his first Circus, Ben’s newly created Davenport Society Circus. Together they performed a double trap act. He also began to make the kind of lifelong friendships that we all care about. Together with Norma Cristiani and her half sister Billie Mariam, they built and performed a 5 person roman ring act for the new show. The winter time had Charlie and Virginia doing vaudeville with a knife act and Blackface comedy. Charlie and Ben Davenport remained the best of friends and in 1938 the show changed names to become Dailey Bros. Charlie became the boss canvasman. This decision to leave the spot lights and applause was one that would change the circus industry for all of us.
In 1944 Charlie was drafted into the Navy. Lucky for him his performance skills were much needed. So in addition to packing parachutes in Texas, he was flown throughout California to perform his knife act with a volunteer WAC.
In 1946 Charlie received his honorable discharge from the Navy and began building the Rogers Brothers Circus for the famous cowboy Buck Owens and his partner Cy Rubins. Charlie took the show out as the Boss Canvasman and Superintendent of Transportation. It was here on the Rogers show that Charlie made another lifelong friend in Bill Hill. After 3 years Charlie began to get restless again and left to go to the Mickey Dale show where he had his own pie car. In 51 he moved on to the Stevens Bros Circus.
Thinking that perhaps it was time to settle down with his two sons, Kenny and Ronnie, Charlie headed to Gonzales Texas and opened up a beer joint. However it was not meant to be, and in 54 Charlie got a call from his brother in-law Paul Powell who asked Charlie to come out on the King Bros. circus and cover for him as Boss Canvasman so that he could take care of some family business. Charlie realized how much he missed the business and agreed to take over the side show and truck department. It was to become the largest truck show of that time with 72 trucks.
Now in demand in the circus business, Charlie was recruited by the Ringling show in 56 to ready the show to move off the train and onto trucks. In 57 the show moved up to Madison Square Garden on the train and then to the Boston Garden. After that the train was put in storage and the show moved under Charlie’s direction until 1960 when it went back out on the train. With “The Greatest Show on Earth” changing back to a rail operation, Charlie had to devise a way to load all the trucks back onto the train. Not only did he calculate the loads, he also devised the loading of the “tunnel” cars.
1960 was also the year that Charlie met Kitty for the first time. Now when we think of Charlie and Kitty you can’t help but think of the Ringling circus trains.
In 1966 when Lloyd Morgan went to Europe for the Ringlings, Charlie took over the train and transportation departments on the show. One of his trademarks was that he was constantly searching for ways to improve the operation. He devised an extension for the wagon tongues known to the crews as “the old lady”. With this device loading became faster and safer. He redesigned the crossover plates on the flats cars, and replaced the traditional “runs” with ramps that were easier and faster to assemble. All of Charlie’s innovations are still used today on the Ringling trains.
Charlie remained trainmaster until 1981 and safely covered more than 300,000 miles. After that Charlie got off the road and worked at the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Winter Quarters operation in Venice, FL. He continues to assist with new design ideas and offer advice to the trainmasters on both units.
Charlie always has a kind word for a friend and sometimes if you are very lucky he will share one of his many funny stories with you that only he can tell. There are many among us that have laughed until we hurt after hearing about the Bull and the Tuba horn. Charlie can also be as rough and tough as the business sometimes requires you to be. Whether it be loading trains in a snow storm or having to run off hooligans that mean to do harm, Charlie has always been up to the challenge.
There are many among us who owe a debt of gratitude to Charlie, not only for safe passage down the tracks, but for his wisdom and guidance through the years. The circus business and the circus way of life is better and more secure today because of Charlie Smith’s contributions throughout the last 70 years. Charlie we are all in your debt. Thank You, Charlie!!!
Submitted by Tim Holan, Red Unit Trainmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey April 2004.