William and Barbara Woodcock
Inducted into the Ring of Fame: 1997
William and Barbara Woodcock
By Dominique Jando
William "Buckles" Woodcock was born on February 26, 1935 in Lancaster, Missouri, to an old American circus family. Although his father, William H. Woodcock (1904-1963), was a first-generation circus man (and became a legendary elephant trainer with a passion for circus history), his mother was Sarah "Babe" Orton (1902-1988), whose grandfather, Hiram, a former sailor and tavern-keeper of British origin, had started a circus in Wisconsin in 1854. As the feisty Babe would often say, "My family was in the circus when the Ringling brothers were still wearing wooden shoes."
Bill (to differentiate him from his father, William) Woodcock grew up around animals, elephants in particular. When he was a toddler, he was often buckled to his mother on a harness to keep him in check and safe around his father's elephants, thus his nickname. At age 11, he began working in the circus as a candy butcher. But Buckles had other plans: in 1951, over his father's objections, he found a job as an animal handler with another elephant trainer, Eugene "Arky" Scott, who worked with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Obviously, there was not much William Senior could do. He and Buckles reunited two years later and began working together. Since his father's vision was failing, Buckles's role in the partnership became increasingly more prominent. In 1951, William Woodcock had acquired a four-year old Burmese woodland elephant, Anna May, from the Al G. Kelly-Miller Bros. Circus, and Buckles began working with her. Anna May, who was a remarkably smart and talented performer, would become America's most famous elephant and stay in the Woodcock family until May 2004, when she went into retirement at Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Greenbrier, Arkansas. She died there that same year, on December 21. Anna May appeared several times on national television, including The Ed Sullivan Show, You Asked For It!, The Merv Griffin Show, Circus Of The Stars, Hollywood Palace, and Pick Of The Night. She can also be seen in the film The Big Circus (1955), starring Victor Mature.
The Woodcock Family
Buckles Woodcock married aerialist and leopard trainer Barbara Ray (b. September 30, 1934), whose parents, LaLea and Ruben Ray, had a tiny circus called Marlowe's Mighty Hippodrome. Her contribution to Buckles's elephant acts quickly became apparent, as her flamboyant personality brought razzle-dazzle to Buckles's familiar performing style—always quiet and subdued, giving the spotlight to his charges instead of himself. Barbara also helped by costuming and choreographing some of their presentations.
Barbara Woodcock had a son, Ben, from a previous marriage with elephant trainer Rex Williams. She and Buckles had two children, Shannon and Delilah. All of the children have participated at one time or another in the Woodcocks's elephant acts. The entire family was in the ring together in 1978, when Buckles starred with a group of twenty-two elephants—including Anna May, who performed with Ben Williams—in the 108th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show On Earth.
Buckles Woodcock has presented his elephants in practically every major American circus. For eighteen years, from 1982 through 2000, his acts were featured every season at the Big Apple Circus, presented either by himself, his wife, or his stepson Ben Williams, sometimes with younger family members participating as well. Some of these acts were created especially for particular productions of the Big Apple Circus.
Following his retirement in 2004, Buckles Woodcock devoted his time to his other passion, circus history, through his popular website, Buckles Blog. One of the foremost elephant authorities in the U.S., he has carried on the work of his father, who had started building a meticulous and comprehensive record of every elephant to set foot in America.
His father told Buckles that an elephant trainer should have "a strong back, a weak mind, and a savage disposition" to succeed in the trade. Neither father nor son actually fitted this description. A calm, patient, and quiet trainer, Buckles Woodcock was able to handle any elephant, whatever its temperament—even elephants that other trainers had discarded for being too "difficult." He also trained several male elephants, which are generally considered too problematic to be presented in the ring. Buckles Woodcock was indeed a worthy heir to his celebrated father—and undoubtedly one of the greatest elephant trainers of his generation.