POODLES AND GRACE
Perhaps the most famous of the Hannefords, Poodles added more to the
art of trick riding than anyone since Philip Astley created the first stock
comedy routines that were a staple of every circus rider up to that time.
He was the first to do a back somersault from one running horse to another
following behind. He created the "step off" - in which the rider steps
off the horse straight legged as it gallops around the ring then calmly
stroll off (most riders do it off the back but Poodles stepped off the
side; extremely dangerous and never been copied). He is also the only comedy
rider to be inducted into the Clown Hall Of Fame and is in the Guinness
Book of World Records for performing a running leap onto a horse at full
gallop then stepping off again and running and leaping back up again -
26 times in succession (Victoria says that George Jr. did more but nobody
from Guinness recorded it). Poodles
also had a movie career which spanned from the silents through the early
50's. He was often called in to do bit parts as stage coach driver, and
such, but began as star in comedy shorts directed by Fatty Arbuckle. In
all he made 42 two reel comedies but at a time when two reelers were on
the decline. He never achieved stardom as an actor but continued working
on movies till the early fifties. He worked with Shirley Temple in Our
Little Girl (1935) and in both the original stage production and consequent
movie of Billie Rose's Jumbo. It's an unfortunate fact that while
equally talented performers on stage and in music often become household
names, circus performers are not so well known. Today we know only a few
- Gunther Gebel Williams, Emmet Kelly, and Karl Walenda, but in his day
Poodles Hanneford was as famous as
many rock stars are today - and far more talented and influential in his
field. Much of what he created is now standard fare for a trick rider.
Poodles is, as the saying goes, much imitated but seldom equaled; probably
the greatest rider this century, if not since the circus began.
Poodles was born in
Barnsley, England, while his parents, Ned and Elizabeth, were working on
the Lord John Sanger Circus, June 14th 1891. When he was just three days
old his aunt Kate walked in to the caravan (trailer) and asked her brother,
"And who is this?"
"This is our three day
old son, Edwin Hanneford Junior," replied the proud father.
"Edwin indeed! He looks
more to me like a big happy poodle. That's what I'll call him, Poodles,"
and thus his aunt named him and so he was known to all for the rest of
The eldest of the three children, he developed into an outgoing, fun loving,
extrovert. Both his parents were superb riders and, as is natural in the
circus, Poodles soon became a part of their act. Though a natural comedian
comedy didn't become a main part of his act until after a performance when
he was about 19. He had just performed flawlessly a routine that included
somersaults, handsprings, and balancing on a table on the back of a horse.
It looked so easy that the audience was left cold. Infuriated, he stormed
off, dumped his riding habit (costume), and improvised a costume from sack
cloth. Then, during his next performance, he burlesqued the whole act.
He had the horses going as fast as they could run as he cavorted about
on their backs - one moment the audience screaming when they thought he
would fall off, the next roaring with laughter. It was a riot from that
time on. Poodles the clown was born.
As the other two children grew and developed their own personalities in
the ring it became apparent that a truly unique riding act was in the offing.
Contrasting the irreverent comedy of Poodles with his younger brother George's
serious and determined riding and his sister Lizzie's beauty and carefree
style along with their mother, Elizabeth, the haughty, matriarchal, authoritarian
ringmaster. The act became a sensation.
Poodles also learned
a second act, as is often required in a circus. He took up the Australian
whip, similar to a bull whip but with a more slender lash and a different
handle. The performer whips away small objects held by his partner. He
took it up when a similar act, that was booked and heavily advertised for
the show, caused too many problems. The act was needed for the show so
Poodles located a whip and spent many hours practicing with his siblings
until he perfected it. Then, after auditioning for his parents, he replaced
the other act. He continued doing it for the rest of his life - long after
he stopped riding.
By the time John Ringling saw the riding act and booked it for the Ringling
show it was the most sought after riding act in the world. Their first
performance in the United States was in the old Madison Square Gardens
and the Hannefords act stopped the show. The audience was still applauding
after they got to their dressing room. Politics always seems to get in
the way, however, and the Hannefords ran afoul of the ringmaster who had
a paticular affinity to a young lady rider. The Hanneford act was putting
her to shame so the ringmaster would cut the Hannefords applause short.
Poodles had learned to play golf and John Ringling was looking for a partner.
As they played Poodles railed him with jokes and banter and John Ringling
finally said, "You're a good fellow. If there's anything I can do for you
let me know." Not one to turn an opportunity down he explained the problem
with the ringmaster. From that time on the Hanneford's recieved all the
applause they were due.
Grace Norma White was a trained dancer and in 1914 applied for a job with
the Ringling show. She was accepted as a dancer but soon met up with Buck
Baker and his wife. They were doing a roller skating act and a bicycle
act - both of which Grace knew how to do. She joined their act that winter
and in 1915 was back with the Ringling show in the Baker Riding Troupe.
That's when she met Poodles. However she refused to marry him during the
war. She didn't want to have a husband called up to go fight and get killed.
So Poodles had to wait until 1919 before he she finally consented.
In 1922 Poodles made his bid for
movie stardom in his first two reel comedy and stayed in Hollywood to make
more. His brother George replaced him as comedy rider - a not so easy transition
for such a serious man. When Poodles returned to the family act in 1926
George had become a success in his new role and decided to leave the act
rather than play second to his brother. Also, the family had grown too
large for the payrole. It was a difficult time for every- body concerned
but it was inevitable. This scene played out many times in the Hanneford
family history - Ned left the family show, George Sr. left the family act,
George Jr. left the family act - but somehow it strengthened the Hanneford
In 1929 Lizzie brought her husband, Ernie Clarke, and his two brothers,
Percy and Charles (The Clarkonian Flying Trapeze act) into the Hanneford
act, creating a unit of acts that dominated any show they appeared with.
The unit allowed for the main riding act, featuring Poodles, the Clarkonian
trapeze act, Charles Clarke's juggling act, and three rings of principal
Poodles and his extended
family worked until 1954 when he performed his last riding act on the Polack
Brothers Circus. Poodles, now in his sixties, discontinued the family riding
act but continued performing his whip routine with Grace, and daughter
Gracie, until 1956. He did one more stint in the circus in 1961 with his
nephew, George Jr., and intended to work the Ringling show in 1962, also
with George and Victoria, but things went awry and Poodles and his family
retired to New York.
In 1956 Poodles, Grace, and Gracie, were hired to work in a new amusement
park in New York called Frontier Town. Poodles played the part of the old
prospector and did some clowning, Grace ran the store, weaved and dyed
frontier fabrics, and Gracie worked her dog act. Apart from the 1961 season
Poodles worked there until his death in 1967. He is buried in Glens Falls,
New York, beneath a stone that features his famous step off. Grace died
in 1984 and was buried next to Poodles.