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Cagey Entertainer's Life Was a 3-Ring Circus

Al G. Barnes created an L.A. amusement mecca. He was nearly as famous for his shenanigans outside the big top.

September 29, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | Times Staff Writer

Few who navigate Washington Boulevard between Culver City and Los Angeles are aware that they are traversing the crossroads of a circus ghost town, the erstwhile Barnes City.

When Al G. Barnes, born Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse, established the winter home of his eponymous trained animal circus in 1919, west of what is now the San Diego Freeway between Washington and Culver boulevards, he ushered in future circus stars and eager fans. He managed to get the area incorporated, playing a little dirty politics in the process, and he left a parade of broken hearts. For nearly two decades, the Al G. Barnes Circus was an L.A. amusement mecca--beginning as early as 1911 at Venice Beach. The circus was the home of Tusko, an 8,000-pound elephant; Jack the Human Fly; and fat Sally and her 112-pound sweetheart.

Mabel Stark, the "world's only woman tiger trainer"--even though there were others before her, including Martha Florine and Princess Irene--and animal trainer Louis Roth got their starts under Barnes' big top. But Barnes' life was like a theatrical high-wire act, teetering between failure and acclaim. He spent more than half his life in the spotlight of a real three-ring circus, fighting off ex-wives, girlfriends, animal activists, charges of perjury and income tax evasion, a paternity suit and personal injury suits, all the while living on a fast track aboard a luxurious private train.

Born on a farm in Ontario, Canada, in 1862, Barnes ran away from home to begin a checkered career as a street peddler, roadshow impresario and circus meister.

In 1895, he arrived in Glenwood Springs, Colo., on a horse-drawn wagon, armed with a squeaky phonograph and a motion-picture projection machine. There, he met Dolly Barlow, who owned a small farm. She sold it five years later for $2,700, when she married Barnes. With the proceeds, they bought up several roadshows that eventually became the Al G. Barnes Circus.

In 1911, at the invitation of the Pacific Electric Railway and Abbot Kinney's Venice of America Amusement Park, the Al G. Barnes Circus rolled into town. Barnes and his company would return for the winter after traveling around the West and Canada in the summer. He and hundreds of performers, trainers, workers and animals would arrive aboard his private train, each of its 40 cars named for a city in Southern California. As an army of well-muscled roustabouts pounded 15-pound sledgehammers onto tent stakes to pitch the big top, the circus paraded through Los Angeles--elephants, horses, acrobats, tigers--the whole glorious troupe.

Everyone wanted to be part of the show. In 1912, Mabel Stark bought a ticket to the circus while vacationing in Los Angeles. She loved it so much that she chucked her nursing career. So apparent was her rapport with furry creatures--and with Barnes--that he offered her a job on the spot as a lion tamer. Over the years, she was clawed, slashed and chewed 18 times, but she continued to tour the world with different circuses--including about a decade with Barnes, off and on.

Even after entering semiretirement, she was the headline act at the now-defunct Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, made famous in 1966 when one of Stark's declawed lions took a bite out of Jayne Mansfield's son while the actress was posing for publicity shots.

During the circus' glory days, audiences cheered as Barnes rode into the center ring astride Tusko the elephant. "Laaaaa-dieeeees and gentlemen, boys and girls," he'd croon before introducing such greats as cowboy Ben Pitti, a former member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show who transfixed the crowd with his trick riding, roping and knife throwing. They also loved the Flying Letourneaus, female trapeze artists who performed without a net. Patrons sat transfixed on hard bleachers under the big tent to marvel at the fire-eaters, clowns, magicians and Lotus, a giant hippopotamus. One day, Tommy the elephant wandered away. Searchers finally found him mired in the La Brea Tar Pits. Tommy's soul-mate, Freda, came to his rescue, pulling him out with her trunk. But no sooner was he free than Freda slipped into the muck. The loyal and grateful Tommy reached in and hauled her onto solid ground.

(Both elephants were last noted in 1933, pulling the stumps of walnut trees out of the ground for an El Monte housing tract.)

In 1919, as box office profits rolled in, Barnes bought 100 acres of the Washington Boulevard property and began putting up permanent buildings. But success, in and out of the ring, led to a long string of women and heartache. During a five-year public battle in Los Angeles divorce court--in which Barnes' wife Dolly accused him of having many lovers and deserting her--Barnes took up with his calliope player, Babe Eckhart.

That relationship ended dramatically in 1919. When Barnes refused to marry her, Babe shot and killed herself on the step of his private Pullman in Idaho. For the rest of his life, Barnes carried around her picture--much to the dismay of his other wives.

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