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The Show Must Go On

Colby Katz

George Hanneforf III is short, broad, and muscular, with Johnny Weissmuller, 1930s, old Hollywood, he-man good looks and an Old World demeanor. At the moment, his natural courtliness is at odds with the outfit he's wearing -- baby blue-and-white-striped cotton clown pants, decorated with red, yellow, and green saucer-size patches and held up with suspenders because they are so wide that another George or two could easily jump inside. And neither his manner nor his outfit jibe with the tears welling in his eyes.

On the other side of a deep-red velvet curtain, an audience of more than 1,000 people has gathered for the 3:30 p.m. Thanksgiving Day show of the Hanneford Family Circus at the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. George's sister Catherine, a willowy blond clad in a closer-fitting version of the striped and patched clown pants, is leading four golden furry ponies around a turnstile, giving rides to children before the circus starts. When the pony rides end, Catherine hurries backstage and ducks into a dressing room.

The house lights dim. The loudspeakers blare big-band marching tunes. A mirrored disco ball lowers, and spotlights swirling through stencils cast blue stars, pink circles, and images of clowns over the audience and onto the center ring. Marina Burkatska, a Russian aerialist, and Lisa Malservisi, an Italian/English dancer, work the front selling popcorn, cotton candy, and circus souvenirs. In just moments, George will welcome the audience.

But right now, his bottom lip is pushed out and quivering like a child's. He has been talking about David Dickerson, a handler and groom who lived and worked with the Hannefords for nine years. Dickerson died June 20, 1990, in an accident when he and George were leading the family's three elephants from their enclosure to a Swap Shop performance. The tragedy devastated George, but it's the subsequent exploitation of his death that makes his blood boil.

For more than five years, the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida has crusaded against the Hannefords and their circus. On the 11th anniversary of Dickerson's death, the Pompano Beach-based nonprofit staged a mock funeral for the animal handler. Motorists streaming past the Swap Shop on Sunrise Boulevard on that date saw a visually arresting tableau at the entrance -- 15 people dressed in black standing silently around a casket.

George shakes his head slowly, angry as he remembers the scene. He fastens his lips together into a grim line and stares out into the distance. "There aren't words to describe it," he says finally. "It was just the lowest, cheapest thing you could possibly do."

The Animal Rights Foundation views Dickerson's death as a local example of what they believe is a common occurrence: an elephant turning on its trainers and handlers. The group believes that Dickerson's death -- like the more than 40 such incidents internationally in the past 12 years -- proves that the Hannefords' elephants are unhappy with their lot, despise their keepers, and will kill, rampage, and try to escape if given half a chance.

George says working Dickerson's death into that story line is fiction and unfair. The tears George battles before the Thanksgiving show are about Dickerson, but they are also about feeling misunderstood and misjudged himself.

Circus people traditionally live apart from the wider culture. They live with animals, for one. At nearly all times, they are either performing, practicing, or taking care of the animals. Yet George is acutely aware of how animal-rights activists regard his profession and his family. And he admits that such organizations have been more effective in marketing their message than his family or other circuses have been. Of course, that's their job. "They're professional mudslingers," he says. "I'm with the animals. That's what I do 24 hours a day."

When he meets someone for the first time, George knows to expect certain questions. "They'll ask if we abuse the animals," he says. "I know it's coming. It's just a stereotype, but it's a very powerful one. Everyone loves animals."

George recently spent two hours trying to convince a woman at his gym that circus animals are not necessarily abused simply because they perform in a circus. It was a futile effort.

After eight generations in the circus industry, George Hanneford III and his sister Catherine may be the last generation of Hannefords to work as traditional circus performers. In part, that's because the traditional circus just isn't the big draw it used to be. Whether they're watching animals jump through hoops or aerialists fly through the air, audiences feel they know what to expect, even if the feats are still as dangerous and mind-boggling as they were generations ago.

The circus with cultural buzz today is Canada's animal-free, seamlessly theatrical Cirque du Soleil -- and even it doesn't have the must-see appeal it did five years ago. Meanwhile, traditional circuses, like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, are putting together more lavishly choreographed, Cirque du Soleil-type productions and relying less on individual circus acts to draw crowds. Thus, the Hanneford siblings enter the full flower of their careers gamely presenting traditions regarded by the public as quaint, old-fashioned, and a tad outdated -- if not cruel.  

But now it's showtime at the Hanneford Family Circus. George sighs deeply. Saddled with his grandfather's melancholic nature, the 31-year-old has to struggle against his natural introversion. From the time he could walk, though, he's been trained to put a smile on it and put on the show anyway.

"Any performer has two sides," says Lyudmila Musina, a Russian circus artist who has done a dog-and-cat show with the Hannefords for the past three years. "One is for the people, and the other is for the kitchen. When circus people go on-stage, everybody thinks this is a happy person. Nobody can see that other side."


"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages," George bellows from behind the still-closed curtain. "Welcome to the Swap Shop and to the Hanneford Family Circus.

"We are proud to present Polish-Arabian stallions performing at liberty, trained and presented by the enchanting Miss Catherine Hanneford, representing eight generations of equestrian excellence."

Catherine glides into the ring in movie-star glam, wearing a strapless, close-fitting, gold lame evening gown, fine honey-blond hair tied in a topknot that cascades to her shoulders. Her transformation from down-in-the-dirt farm girl into glamour babe has taken all of three minutes.

She beams at the audience, raises one arm into the air, pirouettes, and introduces herself. "My name is Catherine Hanneford," she says, pausing dramatically and turning. She sweeps her arm toward the curtain. "And these are my beautiful horses." On cue, five black stallions prance out from backstage and circle the ring. Each has white plumes attached to his head halter and another on his harness, both decorated with silvery medallions.

Catherine has trained her horses to respond to voice commands and cues from a long whip that she wields delicately. The horses perform a tightly choreographed ballet, with Catherine giving directions and furling and unfurling the whip until the tip hits the ground or swirls near the horses' ears. Three of the stallions split off and trot in one direction, passing the other two so closely that they almost brush one another. They weave together, making a braid of movement, while Catherine calls out "easy, easy, easy" to Sartanya, who is rushing, or hurries up another who is lagging behind. She has the horses circle the ring again, then calls them all to her and gives the command to rear. All five rise into the air on their hind legs.

Following Catherine's performance, Musina appears in clown makeup with her three trained poodles and two cats. The visiting act, Cousin Grumpy and the Pork Chop Review, follows. Malservisi and Burkatska perform an aerial ballet on ropes. Mark David Anthony ricochets around a trapeze in the upper reaches of the Swap Shop ceiling while Elton John's "Your Song" swells from the loudspeakers. To close the show, George and Catherine, both now clad in form-fitting turquoise jerseys, perform with the family's three elephants, Carol, Liz, and Patty.

Contrary to what animal-rights activists claim, Catherine says that if you watch Carol, you can see her straining for her cue to enter the ring as the DJ switches the music to Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie."

George believes the elephants could perform the whole routine on their own. "I think they would get about halfway through, look around, and wonder where Georgie and Catherine are," he says later. As the elephants perform -- standing with one leg raised, climbing onto a pedestal, lying on the ground, sitting on their hindquarters -- they seem to cue off the music. "They know which trick comes after which trick. They could do it a cappella," George says. "We are basically there for transitions and timing."

Toward the end of the performance, George hangs onto the harness of one of the elephants and hoists himself up to stand on her head while she stands up on her rear legs. The audience applauds. As the elephants exit, Catherine says, "Say goodbye to these beautiful girls." And a few moments later, George Hanneford III will rip off his turquoise jersey top, come running out into the ring, and do six consecutive back handsprings to end the show.


Before television, malls, blockbuster movies, rock extravaganzas, and the advent of major performing arts halls in even midsized towns, businesses literally shut down when the circus pulled into town in the early 1900s, says John McConnell, owner of Circus Royale and author of a book on the Hannefords. Circus performers were highly paid, well-known public stars. "It was the leading popular entertainment in the United States," he says.  

And when circus people talk about circus dynasties, the Hanneford family is one of the most highly regarded. "They epitomize the tradition of the family circus," said Fred Dahlinger Jr., director of historic resources and facilities at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

The Hanneford family rode that crest of circus popularity to the United States in 1915, but family lore dates their circus roots back to 1778.

Edwin Hanneford, who performed on London street corners and at fairs in the 1700s, was invited by King George III to show off his juggling skills in a competition against one Walter Scott. Hanneford wowed King George, the Hannefords say, not only with his juggling but with his horseback riding.

The modern story of the Hannefords grew to myth in 1890, when another Edwin Hanneford, who was born in 1867 and went by "Ned," married tightrope walker Elizabeth Scott. It was a Romeo-and-Juliet story of a marriage between rival circus families. Elizabeth Scott, whose family owned the Royal Scott's Circus, was supposedly descended from the original Edwin's juggling rival. Elizabeth's father forbade her to see Ned. "He said the Hannefords were both our past and our present rivals," Elizabeth told Justin Douglas in an article in the American Weekly published April 17, 1949. She died in 1953.

After their marriage, Ned and Elizabeth joined their circus prowess. They both rode horseback, and she performed her tightrope routine. In 1903, they formed their own circus with their three children -- Edwin, Grace, and William -- moved to Ireland, and performed as the Hanneford Royal Canadian Circus (even though they were English) for the next 12 years. The children developed a stunning bareback equestrian act. William, who went by the nickname "George," wowed audiences with bareback riding tricks. As the clown "Poodles," Edwin mimicked William's prowess trick for trick. In failing to complete the stunts successfully, he did ever more spectacular feats. Elizabeth, or "Lizzie," as she was known, was a dashing equestrienne who rode in between the two brothers' shtick.

John Ringling saw the act in 1913 and brought Elizabeth Hanneford and her three children to the United States in March 1915. (Ned had died in 1913, and with England in the midst of World War I, his widow was having a hard time running the show.)

Elizabeth served as ringmaster for the family's debut performance in Madison Square Garden in the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Hanneford brood did things on horseback American audiences had never seen, McConnell says. Poodles ran at a horse moving at a full gallop, stepped onto its back, and then off again as it hurtled around the ring, just in time to run at another horse, leap onto it, and jump back off that horse and onto another -- 26 times. They also did somersaults from one galloping horse to a second galloping behind. And Lizzie stood on Poodles' shoulders while Poodles stood astride a galloping horse.

"They stopped the show," McConnell says.

In their heyday, the Hannefords were the highest-paid circus performers in the country, McConnell notes. Poodles starred in a spate of early films, and family members were featured performers in circuses all over the country. Other riders copied the tricks, but they never reached the drama of a Hanneford show. "Just about anyone familiar with the circus would say they had the most entertaining act this country has ever seen," McConnell says.

George Sr.'s sons, Tommy and George Jr., and their sister, Kay Frances, learned the Hanneford act as young children. They enjoyed great success carrying on the family legacy as the George Hanneford Riding Act. Originally, Tommy did the Poodles clowning and George Jr. (Catherine and George's father) performed as the straight rider. George Jr. later also did clowning. He did both with a technical perfection that astonished other riders, McConnell says. He would do the somersault from one galloping horse to another with his feet tied together so that he had to land perfectly to keep his balance. "George Hanneford may be one of the most skilled riders of all time," McConnell says of Catherine and George III's father.


When George Jr. married trapeze artist Mary Victoria "Vicki" George in 1952, they combined their circus prowess into an act like Elizabeth and Ned had done a generation before. The couple worked for Ringling and for the Clyde Beatty Circus in the 1960s. When Catherine and George were born, the pair yearned to create their own circus. For that, they needed elephants. "Sometimes I kid my dad and ask if he had us so he could get the elephants," George III says.  

In 1971, when George III was a year old, his father paid an animal dealer $25,000 to buy elephants for their act. He expected young elephants, but when the shipment arrived, he was flabbergasted. He had never seen elephants that small. Vicki says the five babies reached only to her kneecap. Too young to train for an act, the tiny pachyderms stayed home with Vicki and her children while George Jr. went on the road to earn the family's keep. One of the babies died shortly after the Hannefords acquired the elephants, and they returned another to its original owner. Vicki bottle-fed the three remaining babies; she says the elephants came to regard her as their mother.

When George III says he considers Carol, Liz, and Patty family members, he means he was raised with them almost as siblings. Catherine, who is a few years older than George but doesn't want her exact age published, assisted her mother in taking care of and training the baby elephants. Elephant trainers the family contacted were scared to work with such small elephants for fear of hurting them. Instead, the Hannefords trained the elephants themselves, Catherine says, much the same way people train dogs. Vicki used rewards to reinforce behavior -- not beatings, Catherine stresses. Elephants, like dogs, she says, are eager to please and respond to verbal and gustatory encouragement. "They just want to do anything to hear 'good girl,'" she says.

George says most of the tricks the elephants do -- lying on the ground as if asleep, climbing over one another, standing with a lifted foot, even sitting on their hind quarters and standing on their heads -- are based on natural behaviors. He says elephants use their heads a lot to push things around and will stand on their heads when they want to pin one another down while playing. His mother, he said, rewarded and molded those behaviors until their elephants would do them on command.

While the elephants were schooled in the circus arts, George and Catherine received intensive training as well. Around age 4, George says, his parents started teaching him the family's bareback riding routines. There's a saying in the circus, says his father, George Jr.: "You have to learn it before your feet stop growing."

George Jr. strapped his son into a waist harness attached to a pulley, and the boy climbed on the back of a horse. If he fell off, someone would snatch the harness to hoist him out of harm's way. At 4 years of age, George III also learned how to stand on a horse's back while it galloped around a ring and to leap onto a galloping horse from the ground, like his great-uncle Poodles once had.

"Yeah, I was doing it all at once," George says. "You just get the knack of it. It's hard to describe, but you get the 'gaff' of it -- that's what we call it. You do it, and it is wrong, wrong, wrong every time, and then all of a sudden you do it, and it is right. It has to become instinctual."

Vicki and George Jr. formed the Hanneford Family Circus in 1975, when George was 5. By the time he was 8 years old, George and Catherine opened the show riding into the ring on the baby elephants. The brother and sister did a trampoline routine together. George also assisted the clowns. And Catherine appeared as Cinderella in a coach drawn by a team of ponies.

"Can you imagine that?" she says. "An 8-year-old girl with her own Cinderella coach? No wonder I'm such a bitch."

"And it was a big coach too," George adds.

Catherine says she discovered her talent at horse training when she was 12 years old and helped her father with a pony routine. "I realized that horses listened to me'" she says. "I had a knack for it." She had exhibited an ability to train animals earlier in life: At one point, she trained a rat to come when she called it and to perform tricks. But when she realized horses were her calling, she says, "It was like those commercials where two people are running at each other across a field of flowers." Although she did tumbling and horseback riding, she says, she was never very good at it.

Both children joined the family circus when they weren't in school. Vicki insisted that the pair have a regular education, rather than hire tutors for them so they could perform during the school year, as some other circus families do. She stayed at home with the children and the baby elephants during the school year.  

By junior high school, though, George III was left to his own devices. After Catherine graduated from high school, her parents gave her six horses, and she joined the Hanneford Family Circus full time. When he was 14 years old, George says, he stayed alone in the Hannefords' Sarasota home while the rest of the family was on the road.

George's father would send him money for the bills. He would attend school in the morning and practice his horseback riding in the afternoon. He did his own grocery shopping by bicycle. For incidentals, he would ride a go-cart down to a nearby farm store.

When he attended Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota, his circus skills made him stand out on the Cougars' football team. Whenever they won a game, George would do back handsprings down the length of the field. "And that's just our lineman," his coach commented to a rival after one win.

After receiving an associate's degree from Manatee Community College, George joined the family circus full time too. He could juggle, do acrobatic routines, ride bareback, and perform with the elephants. "If I had to choose what I thought were my natural abilities," he says, "I would say tumbling and horseback."

In 1989, when the Hannefords appeared at the Broward County Fair, Vicki stopped into the Swap Shop to visit owner Preston Henn. She wanted to bring the Hanneford circus to the Swap Shop for some performances after the fair closed. Henn moved a carousel out of the way, and the Hannefords set up a ring inside the Swap Shop building near the concession stands.

The Hanneford Family Circus has been a permanent fixture at the Swap Shop ever since. The circus brought in customers for Henn and entertained those who came there to shop. "It's worked out so well that I spend a million a year to keep them there," Henn says.

Indeed, the circus is so entwined in the Swap Shop business that Henn uses little red- and white-striped circus tents as buttons on his website. And when motorists enter the Swap Shop parking lot, a large clock shows when the next circus performance will be held. He has also painted the exterior of the Swap Shop building with images of elephants and tigers.

Over the years, Henn put in aluminum stadium seating for the audience and installed a water fountain display that entertains the audience between acts. The circus was once free, but a couple of years ago, the Swap Shop started charging $1 admission during the week and $2 on the weekends.

(The circus has served as springboard to a measure of pop-culture notoriety for at least one performer. One of the clowns who performed in the Hanneford Family Circus, Stephen "Steve-O" Glover, is a cast member of the MTV show Jackass and appears in the recent movie of the same name. He earned this post by doing such stunts as landing in a kiddie pool filled with elephant manure -- from the Swap Shop -- and inching down a tightrope over a pit of alligators with a hank of meat hanging from his groin.)

In addition to giving the Hannefords a steady gig, the Swap Shop shelters the Hannefords' circus from the vagaries of fashion -- and provides much the same protection for the drive-in movie. The Swap Shop is one of the few drive-ins in the United States that still shows first-run films. The Hannefords don't really need to keep track of the number of people who see performances. Henn gives them the freedom to concentrate on the quality of the show.

The Swap Shop also allows the Hannefords to afford their elephants. George III estimates that with feed and veterinary care, it costs about $100,000 a year to take care of his family's three largest siblings. Carol, Liz, and Patty will probably live to 70 years of age, so finding a secure source of money for their upkeep is a godsend for the family.

George Jr., now 79, and his wife, Vicki, 67, still oversee the family's circus. Vicki designs and makes all the costumes for the show. But the couple are slowly giving over more responsibility to their children. Eventually, George III will probably be in charge of the Swap Shop circus.

Catherine recently married Brett Carden from the George Carden Circus International. She expects that soon she will leave her family to work with her husband. She has worked with Ringling and in other major circuses, yet she feels that she has never really left home. She wants to try bigger and more showy productions than the Swap Shop can give her; for instance, she spent $12,000 last year staging a Marilyn Monroe routine for her horse act. "In a way, this is my time," she says. But she is also thinking about children and wondering how long she wants to continue performing.  

George, though, expects to stay for as long as Henn will have the Hannefords. And even though the circus might not draw the crowds that it did in his grandfather's time, George says if he has children, he will teach them the circus arts.

"I would train them just the way I was trained," he says. "They can make the decision later on in life about whether they want to perform or not. You can't wait until someone reaches 16 and decides he wants to be an acrobat to start training. It's too late then. I would give them the foundation, and then it would be up to them if they wanted to go in a different direction."


On June 20, 1990, David Dickerson was walking alongside Carol as he and George led the three elephants from their enclosure. At the time, the walkway from the pen into the Swap Shop vendor area was open to traffic, and a driver anxious to leave the Swap Shop came up on the rear of the elephants in a big hurry. He lingered behind the elephants for a second and then swerved around them. Dickerson ducked under Carol to avoid being hit by the car, George says, and at the same time, Carol turned to see what the commotion was about to her flank. Carol knocked into Dickerson, he fell, and she stumbled over him.

It was a horrible accident, George says. For anyone else, he says, the injury would not have been fatal. But Dickerson had had his left rib cage removed when he was a child because it was malformed at birth. Without it, Carol's weight crushed his internal organs. George tried to give Dickerson CPR at the scene, but the older youth died.

On their website, the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) alerts parents that the elephant involved in Dickerson's death is still thought to be giving rides to children after circus performances. George freely admits to this fact, adding that, at the time of the accident, Carol even tried to help Dickerson as he lay on the ground, nuzzling him with her trunk.

The Dickerson incident is just one of many misinterpretations George says ARFF passes off to the public as fact. ARFF Managing Director Heather Lischin says that the elephants' backs are scarred from scraping against the concrete entryway to the Swap Shop complex. George says that the elephants enjoy scratching their backs as they enter the building against the doorway and that it leaves a chalky residue. "It washes right off," he says. Lischin also says Catherine's stallions have pained expressions as they rear up during performances. Hanneford calls that putting human emotions onto animal expressions. Of the six citations the organization cites that the Hannefords received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, George says they were all because his father didn't keep separate veterinary records.

"These people really know nothing about animals," he says. "They protest the circus for 45 minutes, and then they go to the local coffeehouse and congratulate themselves on how much they care about animals."

George III says he will remain with his family's 24 tons of elephant no matter what strategies ARFF tries. He lives in a trailer at the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop to be near Carol, Patty, and Liz. Several times during the night, he checks to make sure they're OK. He wakes up to their bellowing for breakfast at close to 4 a.m. About once a month, he takes the elephants to a friend's property in Davie and lets them loose. They come back, he says, when he calls to them. Every day but Tuesday, he dons those crazy clown pants and leads the elephants through the Swap Shop booths into the center ring for a show.

The elephants have provided George with a good living. He earns $39,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on what kind of season the Swap Shop is having. But they have also put a serious crimp in his social life. One of the Hannefords (usually George) is with the elephants 24 hours a day. "It's what I do with 95 percent of my time anyway," he says.

On a computer in his trailer, George monitors the writings and rhetoric of animal-rights activists. After September 11, his obsession went into overdrive. He worried that a renegade animal-rights activist might try to hurt one of the elephants to free it from its supposedly painful prison life. He refused to leave the elephants. His girlfriend at the time didn't understand his alarm. Eventually, she left him. "She started courting someone else," he says in his old-fashioned way.  

George has tried to go out and meet other women, he says, but since he likes to be in bed by 10 p.m., his efforts haven't proved very successful. "The only people in the clubs were the bartender and me at that hour," he says. And then he gained 25 pounds. "You're sad and kind of lonely, and right outside your door there is a drive-in theater and all those snack stands," he explains.

Now he's on a strict diet of broiled chicken and barley, hoping to shed the weight and start doing his horseback riding again.

On his day off, George walks through the Swap Shop parking lot on tiptoe, like he's going to run off and do handsprings any second. A little white Pomeranian ball of fluff named Clara Belle follows him. George is headed to Grif's Western in Davie to pick up feed.

The scents wafting from the garbage cans dotting the lot lure Clara Belle away from Hanneford. She makes a detour to sniff the edges and hunt for stray food on the perimeter of the cans. "Clara... Clara Belle," George calls to the dog. "Come on, Clara." She trots up beside him and then strays away again. When the pair reaches the edge of the Swap Shop property, George turns down a paved road that leads to his trailer. Clara Belle moves into a grassy right of way, where she busily sniffs the ground, ignoring his calls. "Clara Belle... Clara Belle, come on." Clara Belle snubs him. "That's it," George says. "If you don't come on, I'm going to carry you." He walks over to Clara Belle and scoops her into his arms. "That's funny," he says. "A guy who works with elephants can't get his dog to pay any attention to him."

George puts Clara Belle back down on the ground and holds out his hand. The dog stands on her hind legs and looks up at George. "Around," he says. She spins around like a ballerina. Then George walks forward taking big purposeful steps while Clara Belle weaves between his legs. Even the Hanneford family dog is a performer. "I'll give you chicken when we get home," he promises her. "I better, or I'll be in trouble."


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