Bertram Mills Circus III: The Grand Show in 3D and Final Thoughts on All 30 cards

Final part of a 3 part series; for part 1 click here, for part 2 click here.

THE STORY SO FAR: Ages ago I obtained a partially-complete VistaScreen Series 46 set featuring the Bertram Mills Circus. Had it not been missing a view, I likely would not have become obsessed with completing the series, and with VistaScreen in general. In the years-long journey, I discovered two more series on Bertram Mills – one of which has its own designation, and the other of which is a completely different set of 10 with the designation “Series 46”. This post will explore the scarce “Night” version of the latter, likely sold later as a replacement for the version displayed in Part 2 of this series.

In contrast with the last two installments, we’re only going to explore a couple of things about this version of Series 46, “The Circus”, before diving into the images. Further exposition will follow the stereoview gallery, and encompass all three sets of images. There are just a few notes to make before viewing. Firstly, the interior shots would have been more of a challenge, and many of them are blurrier than the sunny, outdoor sights from the other sets. Secondly, the captions seem hastier in this version than in the others; “Joan and Baby Elephant” should be “Joan and Baby Elephants”, since there are obviously more than one. “Sealions” don’t exist – they’re “Sea Lions”. Dubrow is not riding a horse named “High School”; he is riding his horse high school – a circus term that apparently was transformed into a name. It’s as if the captioner were rushing these to print. And most importantly, remember that these photos were primarily taken inside the Big Top – unlike the other two series – a notion we’ll dive into later. Now the gallery:

First and foremost, several of these characters appear repeatedly:

  • Coco appears at least once per set. This is unsurprising, as he worked with the Circus for decades
  • Renowned Scottish lion tamer (and son-in-law to Coco) Alexander Kerr and/or his favourite tiger ‘Khan’ appear twice in each set.
  • Kurt Dubrow appears once in each set, with one or two of his featured horses.
  • Joan Kruse (nee Fowler), with one or four elephants, appears once in each set.
  • “Little Billy” Merchant appears in each set – twice in the “Day” version of Series 46.
  • Nikki (Little Billy’s frequent act partnert) appears in C.62 and in the “Day” set.

Unsurprising, as the show’s stalwarts and main performers would appear in each set. Additionally, both versions of Series 46 contain Clarinda, the Ballerina, as well as the somewhat culturally dubious Davy Crockett and the Mohawk Red Indian Aerialists (though the presence of the Mohawks is minimized in the “Night” series). I think there is enough to go on here to say that both versions of Series 46 were taken either on the same day (likely) or, at the very least during the same season (less likely, as Stanley Long tended to capture all he could in a single day, and not return to a subject). So if the “Night” series was indeed a replacement for the “Day” series, then it had to be culled from the shots taken contemporaneously with, but not chosen for, the “Day” series. Based on a sampling of Circus pamphlets from this time period, this places Series 46 (both versions) around 1956.

The appearance of a seemingly slightly different troupe in Series C.62, including the Rogge Sisters (who performed under that name in the 1955-57) means that this series can not have been so terribly temporally displaced from the Series 46 stereoviews. But dating them precisely is hard – Beppo, a relative of famed tightrope walker Karl Wallenda, was with Bertram Mills at least from 1952-1959; there seems to be little-to-no information on “Reco” the Hobo. So it’s entirely possible that all three sets were taken on the same day – at the very least, it can’t be ruled out. It is certain that they were all taken between 1955 and 1957.

So one question that was not addressed in Part 2 of this series remains – if VistaScreen wanted to discontinue the original Series 46, and to release another circus-themed series in addition to Series C.62, why not just stop selling Series 46 and make a new one out of the “Night” series outtakes? There’s an intuitive answer here – the order forms that one could use to obtain new VistaScreen series by mail sometimes included Series 46 – “The Circus”. So they needed something in the catalogue under this title. But of course, we can’t be sure, like so many things with VistaScreen. Whatever records were kept after the Spring Brothers and Stanley Long parted ways and sold off the VistaScreen format to Weetabix have not been digitized; perhaps they’re sitting in an attic somewhere, or in a Weetabix storage facility.

What is interesting is that the C.62 series shows a good mix of performers preparing, interacting in the great outdoors, and performing in the Great Tent. The two Series 46 sets are more disjointed, with the “Day” set showing behind-the-scenes action, practicing in a field, and a couple of shots of the show itself, while the “Night” set primarily focused on the performance. There’s are very logical reasons for Long selecting the “Day” series images first – not only are they more interesting from a perspective of having seen it all, but they’re less contrasty. Long tended to shoot on low-contrast plates, which were slower, and with 6 backs for his camera, could shoot 60 negatives per day. So while at least 1/3 of the photos shot for Series 46 were printed (at least 1/2 if the C.62 photos were from the same day), the darker ones wouldn’t – and didn’t – turn out as well. Slow emulsions mean longer exposure times – and one can see the camera shake in some of today’s images.

For whatever reason – possibly one of the theories discussed in Part 2 of this series, and possibly because of some other reason, VistaScreen at some point stopped selling the rather common (in VistaScreen terms) “Day” set, and replaced the cards in Series 46 with the inferior – but far scarcer – “Night” set photos. Any additional information I manage to obtain on these sets will be added to this post, as this is the final repository for my thoughts and research on VistaScreen’s visits to the Bertram Mills Circus. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey – and now, for something completely red/cyan…


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