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A big top family

St. Cloud man recalls parents’ circus years

By Bill Vossler

Thelma Hulet in her circus outfit in 1925, working on some of her acts outside. She is thought to be 18 in this photo. Contributed photo

When Thelma Hulet was a young teen, she ran away from home, with perhaps vague thoughts about joining the circus, as kids did during those days. In her booklet, The Life and Times of Thelma Regan, she writes, “My stepfather didn’t want much to do with me except to discipline me, so I ran away to my grandma’s.”

While there she saw an ad in the newspaper that changed her life--an advertisement for the Williams and Lee Circus. “They were acrobats and aerialists. The ad said they wanted to train someone for a circus act. I answered the ad.”

They asked how old she was. “I was about 14, but I told them I was 18. And they accepted me!” The year was 1921.

They trained her, first to work with different partners, and when they discovered how talented she was, she got her own act. “In those days,” she says, “you had to perform more than one act. For instance, I did slack-wire, rolling globe, and I was a contortionist.”

Slack-wire is high-wire plus, with a wire not tight, but slack, so the walker moves a few inches downward on one end of the wire, balances in the middle, and moves a few inches upward at the other end. “It requires a double balance,” she says, “because you are not only balancing yourself, but balancing this moving wire. That is why you don‘t see too many performers doing slack-wire, because it is more difficult than high-wire.”

“When I performed on the rolling globe, I balanced on it and juggled at the same time, or tried other things to make it more difficult. I also did aerial, trapeze,” along with foot-juggling, which included animals.

“Zak was one of the dogs that I trained for my foot juggling act,” and then there were monkeys. “I had monkeys in my acts, which I also used to foot juggle with. Wildcat was a rhesus and Toto was a ringtail.”

As her son Bruce Regan of St. Cloud said, one time during the circus years the Regans came to St. Paul to visit his maternal grandmother. “They brought one of the monkeys along, and when they went to visit some friends, warned my grandmother not to let the monkey out of its cage. But she did.”

The animal tore up the apartment, and when the Regans returned, they had to get the monkey under control.

Traveling Circus

The circus year ran from early May until November, starting in the north and heading south as the weather cooled, into Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, traveling any way they could, “In cars, on trains, motor homes,” she said. “They were homemade affairs. One car was a Model T Ford. The shows would often be one-day stands, and it was very difficult work.”

One of Thelma’s main acts was her contortionist work, as in this picture. Contributed photo

The cook tent was the first one set up, followed by the big top. “We worked under canvas a lot. We all got so tired of the cooking. Everyone complained about it. There were flies and bugs galore around it. When I look back, I see they did wonders with kerosene stoves.”

She said she couldn’t drink the coffee. “It was made in a great big gray enamelware pot, three or four gallons at a time. The pot was never emptied out. They just added more coffee and more water!”

One time in 1929, Thelma said, after setting up in a small Texas town, a freak blizzard came up. Bruce said, “The story I heard was that because they had the big tent, and heaters--which many people in a small Texas town didn’t have in the early 1930s--as well as cooking facilities for feeding large numbers of circus workers, the circus opened the tent to anybody in the town who needed to stay warm, or eat.”

Thelma said the little kids in the village seemed quite needy. “They came by our tents and said, ‘Are you gypsies?’ We said no, we were circus performers.”

Despite being on the road for most of the year, Thelma still went to school. “During the winter I tried to go to school in whatever city I was in and catch up on some of the things that I had missed.”

The circus also provided a Medicine Show. “It was a free show for people where I did many of the same acts that I did in the circus.”

The medicine was made by the carnies. “We all helped bottle the medicine; it was supposed to be a harmless tonic. Then it was sold between acts to people in the audience. And people would buy it--like crazy! This is how the medicine show made its money.”

Single No More

Thelma (Hulet) Regan and her husband, Jack, were acrobats and aerialists for the Williams and Lee Circus about 100 years ago. Contributed photo

For the first eight or so years of her circus career, Thelma was single. That changed in 1929 when she decided to take a break from show business. The Great Depression had started, limiting acts and pay. “I went to St. Paul to visit my mother. At the time she had a boarder living with her.”

That boarder was Jack Regan, whom she married on Jan. 30, 1930. “After we were married, we worked in the circus for a while. One of the acts we did together consisted of Jack juggling while I held him up in the air with my feet.”

Jack was what you called a roustabout, Bruce said. “He did whatever needed to be done, loading and unloading trucks, wearing silk shirts and juggling for the crowd, putting up and taking down the tent, whatever they asked him to do.”

Expanding Business

With the Depression continuing, Thelma says money was short, “Because it had been a bad season. It was a long time till May 1st when we [would] roll again. It was 1930, the banks had failed, and money was tight. We would practice, practice, and more practice, always trying to do something more exciting and daring. We had animals to care for that we used in the act and they had to learn new tricks, so the days passed quickly.”

Thelma expanded her repertoire, performing vaudeville in Chicago with different partners in a chain of theaters, coming on stage between the movies. “We were considered an added attraction. I dd contortion and juggling. There were also song and dance teams, and skits. So as you can see I worked for the circus, the medicine show, vaudeville, and whatever else paid well at the time.”

Once the children were born, the Regans decided to leave show business. “We didn’t feel it was a good place to raise our children, and we weren’t getting paid as much due to the Great Depression.”

Thelma (Hulet) Regan. Contributed photo

Jack and Thelma used their circus money to buy a fixer-upper house in St. Paul, which Jack fixed up, resold, and bought another. Bruce says he grew up in many different fixer-upper houses that his dad fixed up and sold. “He was house flipping before there was house flipping.”

When Bruce took his eight-year-old son Mark through the area where Bruce had lived in different houses, Mark said, “Was the sheriff after you?”

Thelma went into the restaurant business, working as a waitress, cocktail waitress, and moving up to a food supervisory position, for which she was sent to a gourmet cooking school in St. Paul. She says, “It was a prestige thing. I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know!”

“My husband and I would plan our shifts so that one of us would be home with the kids. I raised our kids pretty much by telephone. I would call them up and tell them what to do from work!”

She became an assistant manager at a restaurant, and catering manager at the University Club of St. Paul. “I worked a long time, and I loved every minute of it.”

During the Depression years Jack worked at whatever he could find, including the Works Project Administration (WPA). In 1940, things stabilized when he got a job in metal-working factory producing things for the coming war.

This Is How You Do It

Bruce’s parents tried to pass their circus skills on to him. “My dad tried to teach me to juggle, but I was hopeless.” On the other hand, his mother showed him how to put his entire body through an 18-inches-in-diameter ring. “One of her acts was to do that with that ring, to put it on one leg, get your whole body through it, and take it off the other leg. I managed to do it,” he said, “but I wouldn’t even consider it today,” he laughs.

Bruce remembers that his mother remained very agile in her sixties. “She could bend over the put her elbows on the floor. That was just incredible. I could hardly believe it.”

Thelma Regan died at 91 in 1998, 30 years after Jack died. Of her circus years she said, “I made a pretty good amount of money, more than I would have made doing anything else. I enjoyed the circus. We were all like one big family!”

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