Who doesn’t love a good circus? The elephants, the clowns, the peanuts, the acrobats, the pretty ladies, the frightening tigers, the overwhelming sense of spectacle – all for the price of admission. In the United Kingdom, the circus was all but dead after the Great War. But then a former Captain from the Royal Army Medical Corps became an entrepreneur, and in 1920 he made a £100 bet: that he could bring a great circus to London within a year. When his contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fell through, he decided that he’d not lose his wager – and thus staged his own first circus show. That man was Bertram Mills.
That first year of performances was so successful that Mills continued to run the circus until his death in 1938, at which point his sons Bernard and Cyril took over the family business. The Bertram Mills Circus was so popular in Great Britain that it became a must-see attraction in London; every year, it attracted the Royal Family, numerous members of Parliament, and other dignitaries. Winston Churchill attended annually.
Mills prided himself on a family-friendly environment with a variety of entertainments – something to suit everybody. An astute businessman, he was not above promoting specific performers above the entire company if they generated significant interest – in fact, it was one of his five principles, described thusly in Circopedia:
In creating this great show from what appears to have been a simple and naïve wager, Bertram Mills brought five major principles, which he applied ruthlessly to his enterprise… The first was to strive for quality in whatever he did, to seek out the most polished and perfect acts in every category, and to present only the best aspects of those acts—this being his second principle. Then, at all costs, he sought to attract, host and convert the most influential people to the cause of the circus, having starting his show at a time with this industry was at a particularly low ebb in Great Britain. Fourthly, he didn’t hesitate to promote individual acts or performers as stars of the show, and fifthly, he used and developed the emerging energy of public relations and targeted advertising.
The circus continued its success into the 1950s, and struggled into the 60s, finally failing in 1967. However, the legacy of Bertram Mills lives on – in its influence on contemporary large-scale circuses, in legend – and in a series of VistaScreen stereoviews!
VistaScreen is primarily known as the company that provided a free miniature stereoview in each box of Weetabix – featuring subjects such as “Animals”, “Our Pets”, “British Cars”, and “British Birds”. But before that, they also attempted – quite unsuccessfully – to compete with View-Master in the mass-market miniature stereoview market. Founded in 1955, the company produced over 300 sets of 10 stereoviews, but it was perhaps a misguided effort – View-Master already had a large market, offered color reels, and like Tru Vue as well, included an auto-advance system. VistaScreen effectively was a tiny, hard-to-merge Holmes-style system using inferior materials. Their photography was quite hit-or-miss – observe the wild amount of hyper-stereo from the above card, the most flawed (and almost un-viewable) from the set:
It’s no wonder that the company folded. But before they did, they produced many interesting sets – such as Series C.62 “Bertram Mills Circus”. So let’s take a look at the rogue’s gallery of subjects contained within this pack of cards:
Clearly a nice little handpicked set – if family-friendly and inoffensive, like the Bertram Mills circus itself. Still, there are some great images here – I’m particularly enamored of “Beppo”, the stilt-walking clown – the joy on the faces of the audience is almost palpable. And on the whole, a nice, couple minute (when loading and unloading from the clunky VistaScreen viewer) journey back in time to one of the last great British circuses was reaching the end of a very long, and very influential, run. Bertram Mills is gone, as is VistaScreen, but these cards – and at least one other pack (#46, an image from which is included in this blog’s very first post) – are still circulating out there. Enjoy them anaglyphically below (click for an enlarged version):