Gentry Brothers Famous Shows Wowed Johnson Citians in 1915

Tuesday, September 14, 1915 was an exciting day for circus lovers in Johnson City. At 6:00 a.m., as the sun slowly began to disperse the darkness in the morning sky, the first array of circus trains began to appear in the city.

The Gentry Brothers Famous Shows, known as “the cleanest circus in the world,” had arrived, bringing with it the promise of an entertaining spectacle for its residents. Four Gentry brothers, Henry B., Frank, Walter W. and J. W., all from Bloomington, Indiana, originated the circus in 1887; it remained in business off and on until 1934.

Because of the number of cars coming to Johnson City, officials had to make provisions with the railroad for track space. The number of railcars on hand was said to be twice that used in previous shows.

Early risers desiring to witness the circus unload were rewarded with sights of showmen who had tumbled from their berths, ready to go to work after a night’s slumber. While most residents were still in bed, the surrounding lots were magically transformed into a city of canvas tents. To the casual observer, the exhibition appeared to be one of disorder and confusion, but the operation was performed as it had been done so many times before with not a single worker wasting time and energy.

At 10:30 a.m., the circus was ready for its famous street parade, which was billed as “taking place rain or shine.” By this time, the parade route was aptly populated with curious spectators of all ages.

Although the procession route is not known, it was advertised to be “a solid mile of gold and glitter.” Based on this clue and the previous carnivals and circuses that came to the city over the years, the likely starting point was at the railroad tracks near Model Mill (later General Mills). It probably turned left onto W. Walnut Street, took another left onto Buffalo Street, bore right onto E. Main Street at Fountain Square and traveled straight ahead to the large open field that the city’s Municipal Building now occupies.

The parade was a precursor to and an advertisement for what would later be presented in the big canvas circus tent. Oldsters and youngsters were caught up in dreams of fantasyland. The owners hoped this public display would attract scores of paying patrons to the performances.

The circus offered two exhibitions in Johnson City that day. Doors opened for a complimentary inspection of the animals in the menagerie at 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Each performance commenced one hour after the gates opened. The displays were of a larger and grander scale than those previously offered. Children attending the show in the afternoon slot were permitted to ride an elephant or pony under the care of a trained and courteous attendant.

The Gentry Brothers Famous Shows, which were promoted as “the world’s pioneers in trained animal exhibitions,” had been extensively enlarged to offer realistic taming of jungle leopards and other ferocious beasts within “canvas coliseums.”

In addition to several feature acts, three of them were new to America: The Carr-Thomas Trio, sensational burlesquing acrobats; The Cole Troupe, novelty artists of breathtaking and difficult acts on the high wire; and The Krannell Sisters, aerial butterflies swinging by their teeth in a fascinating display of grace and splendor in mid-air. 

A funny story circulated about the circus. A fire once caused workers to scamper about pulling hose lines to extinguish the blaze. The next day, a trained monkey was observed pulling hose from a box in a corner of the menagerie. This action destined the primate to become the first monkey fire chief in the world. Soon, other monkeys mimicked the act and they, too, learned to battle a fake blaze. The act became an instant favorite with circus fans.

After the final show, the circus promptly returned to the railroad cars and discretely departed for its next destination, ending an exciting day for Johnson Citians.