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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Circus Atmosphere

First Woman Big-Top Publicist Tells Tales of Three Rings Books

August 13, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After becoming the first woman circus publicist in 1945, Shirley Carroll O'Connor spent the next 25 years promoting the legendary likes of animal trainer Clyde Beatty, clown Emmett Kelly and the Escalante Family of aerialists.

But now that she's written a book about her circus experiences, O'Connor is faced with a Jumbo-sized problem: She could use a good publicist.

"I find it difficult to promote myself," admits O'Connor, 82, a resident of Leisure World in Laguna Woods. "I've never been good at that." With a laugh, she added, "I can promote anything else."

With her husband, Norman Carroll O'Connor, O'Connor was half of the Carrolls Agency, a Hollywood-based public-relations and advertising firm that beat the drums for the Clyde Beatty Circus, the Cole Brothers Circus, the Polack Brothers Circus, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"We handled publicity for all of them when they came here to Southern California," O'Connor said.

O'Connor's slim, 103-page book, "Life Is a Circus" (Xlibris Corp.; $18), chronicles her marriage and career during a time in which her good friends included the Sheep-Headed Man, the Flipper Boy, the Two-Faced Man" and other sideshow and big-top performers.

The Cleveland native, who moved to Hollywood at 15 with her mother in 1934, met her future husband in Los Angeles in 1944 when she was working for a war-relief agency.

At the time, Norman was a sideshow barker and ringmaster for the Cole Brothers Circus, one of the large touring railroad shows.

They were married in early 1945 after only six dates.

Their brief honeymoon to Arrowhead Springs, where Norman had organized a USO show, set the tone for their 22-year marriage.

When the Red Cross station wagon arrived to pick them up, O'Connor slid into the front seat next to the driver without noticing who was in the back seat: a snarling, 200-pound leopard draped across the lap of its trainer, Olga Celeste, who was known as the Leopard Lady. (Nissa, the leopard, had gained immortality as the "baby" in "Bringing Up Baby," starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.)

O'Connor's husband was eager to introduce his new bride to his circus friends. The couple's first luncheon guest at their apartment was a 24-inch-tall sideshow performer, who had to sit on a stack of books to reach the table and use a pickle fork to eat.

O'Connor quickly grew to love the circus.

"It was wonderful," she said. "In those days, it was very family-oriented and, contrary to what some people think about circus people, they were mostly religious people who were very concerned with their health and making people happy."

Though her husband continued to be a ringmaster, primarily for the Clyde Beatty Circus and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, until the late '50s, the couple began doing circus publicity shortly after their wedding.

"When you married into the circus in those days, you had to do something," O'Connor said. "I was 5-foot-9 and not exactly sylph-like, so I couldn't do the trapeze. But I could go on the radio and pretend to be a trapeze artist or elephant trainer--you name it."

O'Connor said she was always "truthful with the press; in fact, our agency had a reputation for that." But in radio in those days, she said, it didn't matter if a person was who she claimed to be: "They were just looking for a good interview."

O'Connor's husband died in 1967. After concluding the 1969 season, she resigned from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Then, she said, her life took an entirely different turn when she became what she jokingly calls "the oldest counterculture publicist."

The Carrolls Agency handled theater and heavy-rock accounts, including "Tommy," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Grease" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show." And she later became director of publicity for the Universal Studios tour and Amphitheatre, where she promoted "all the rock stars that came."

O'Connor retired from the publicity business in 1981 and moved to Leisure World.

She had written her memoirs 30 years ago, shortly after retiring from the circus.

The legendary Aggie Underwood, one-time city editor of the old Los Angeles Herald Express and a close friend of O'Connor's, advised her at the time, "You better sit down and write your memoirs of the circus because you're going to forget them."

"How could I forget 25 years of my life?" O'Connor countered.

"Believe me, you will," Underwood responded.

"Aggie was a very smart lady and I decided to take her advice," O'Connor said. "I never considered myself a writer. Writing publicity is different than any kind of creative writing. Aggie said, 'Write it as you would tell it,' and that is exactly what I did."

So why the long delay before her book was published?

"I wrote it and a friend of mine, a literary agent, liked it and she gave it to a publisher who liked it but said there wasn't enough sex in it. I said, 'I can't help it if I had a happy marriage and didn't fool around.'

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