Foley & Burk Combined Shows

Above: The new 2019 restoration and Below: Late 1920s Foley & Burk Circus wagon in use at the Circus

Many of us remember visiting the circus as children, admiring the spectacles, the clowns, the animals, the smell of popcorn and cotton candy and of course the big top tents. Historically travelling zoological exhibitions were known as menageries, with acrobats and trick animal acts being the features of entertainment. In the eighteenth century it was the combination of these features within a circular structure that became known as a circus. Philip Astley (1742-1814), the founder of the modern circus, staged a show in London in 1768 featur-ing trick horseback riding and live music. It was presented in a circular structure, and name Astley’s Amphitheatre. He later added other acts, such as acrobats, a clown and a band to his performances. However, the term ‘circus’ to describe this type of exhibition was coined by Astley’s contemporary and rival Charles Dibdin, who opened The Royal Circus in London in 1772.

By the middle of the Victorian era travelling circuses had become large commercial entities ranging from small tenting affairs to gigantic enterprises housed in permanent buildings or amphitheaters. For the first half of the nineteenth century, circus was largely performed in wooden buildings rather than in tents and proprietors such as Frederick “Charles” Hengler constructed various purpose-built buildings known as hippodromes, circuses and amphitheaters in cities throughout the United Kingdom. Hengler was one of the greatest circus proprietors of the nineteenth century. He was an equestrian, musician, all-round performer.

Foley & Burk Combined Show was a semi-successful traveling circus operating from 1913-1969. They started as a fifteen car railroad show, the only one in the west. The show would eventually grow to twenty cars and played the same locations every year, constrained by the limited railroad lines. Thus, the Combined Shows were held in California cities that hosted yearly fairs; Fresno, Bakersfield, Merced, San Jose, Yuba City; Chico; Modesto, Pleasanton; Stockton; Sacramento State Fair; and they always closed at the Ventura County Fair.

Above is the Foley & Burk wagon in 1984 as we re-ceived it from Harold Davidson. Below is the circus wagon after restoration in 1984.

The Foley & Burk Show in the early 20th century was like many traveling carnivals and circus shows; they exhibited people with extraordinary abilities or physical attributes not often seen in every day public life. Some such sideshow stars were Alfred the Alligator Boy; A sword swallower named Bill Ukes; Ms. Jane Greene the 4 Legged Girl, but the most famous being Schlitzie; The Last of the Aztec Children. Schlitzie was a well known sideshow star mainly for his appearance in the 1932 film by Todd Browning; “Freaks”. Schlitize was an individual born as Simon Metz sometime around 1901, he suffered from a birth defect known as microcephaly and often referred to as pinheads. He was only 4 feet tall and was said Schlitzie had the cognition of a three-year-old and unable to care fully for himself. He could speak mostly in monosyllabic words but could form a few simple phrases. However, he was able to perform simple tasks, and it is believed that he could under-stand most of what was said to him, as he had a very quick reaction time and the ability to mimic.

Those who knew Schlitzie described him as an affectionate, exuberant, sociable person who loved dancing, singing, and being the center of attention, performing for anyone he could stop and talk with. While Schlitzie was performing with the Tom Mix Circus in 1935, George Surtees, an animal trainer with a chimpanzee act in the show, adopted him, becoming his legal guardian. Under George Surtees’ care, Schlitzie continued performing the sideshow circuit; after Surtees’ death in 1965, his daughter, who was not in show business, committed Schlitzie to a Los Angeles county hospital. Schlitzie remained hospital-ized for some time until he was recognized by Bill Unks, the sword swallower from Foley and Burk. Bill Unks worked in the hospital in the off season as a caretaker and according to Unks, Schlitzie seemed to miss the carnival badly, and being away from the public eye had made him very depressed. In 1968 hospital authorities determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to make him a ward of Unks’ employer, showman Sam Alexander, and return him to the side-show. Schlitzie did return to the sideshow circuit per-forming with The Foley & Burk Combined Shows, singing and dancing along side the circus wagon. Foley & Burk closed the traveling circus in 1969 and Schlitzie sadly passed away a few years later, in 1971 at the age of 70. He is interned in Queen Of Heaven Cemetery, Rowland Heights, California.

The Foley & Burk Combined Shows had several wagons and carriages in their show and one such wagon belongs to the Carriage and Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara. The circus wagon was made in the early 20th century, sometime around 1920 and was used primarily as a bandwagon touring with the circus on the west coast. During their visits to the towns they usually had a live band play in the wagon but at times it also housed an air calliope, which is a type of self driven steam organ. This wagon has gone through many different designs throughout its life, records for the Combined Shows tour are scarce but the wagon was surly painted in many different schemes, one such design that was likely used is pictured below.


The wagon was originally a US Government Concord, there is a stamp in the axel that reads NS/G indicating that the wagon was purchased as surplus by Foley and Burk around 1918 and was stripped down and rebuilt into the travelling circus wagon, wagon #22 as seen in the original pictures. Harold G. Davidson, local author and Ed Borein expert, donated the wagon to the Carriage Museum in 1984 and was restored by Dick Romero shortly after it was donated.

The wagon has been used in the Santa Barbara Old Spanish Day’s Fiesta Parade for several decades and this year will again be in the Parade but with a new panel restoration done by Freedom Signs and an under carriage restoration by Joe Interlundae and Garrett Mclaren, friends of the museum. The wagon will carry the children participating in the Santa Barbara Stock and Rodeo Show this year. The full restoration was made possible by the generous donation from Candy Pelissero and Brian Larsen, who were also friends of Harold Davidson.