The Sandow Family Circus Variety History – Part Twelve

The Sandow Family Circus Variety History – Part Twelve.
Joe Gandey’s Circus International. Joe really loved his Equestrian!

I was unemployed for about one week, enjoying a rest in fact, and pondering what to do next, this being the end of August 1966 and not the best time for finding a new position in circus. But news travels very fast in show-business (especially bad news!) for out of the blue came a message from Joe Gandey inviting me to join the show ‘at once.’ This was a welcome surprise for I had not even considered his show. I arrived there a couple of days later assuming that he was short of an act, as his tours usually ended towards the close of October. He later told me that he would pay for six months road tax on his lorries and didn’t wish to pay for 12 months therefore scheduled his run to conclude when the tax ran out! Very typical Joe. His small excellently run show was situated at St Helens in Lancashire.

On arrival (with my mother) I learned that Joe Gandey’s very able General Manager, Peter Featherstone, was leaving at that season’s close and Joe would like me to replace him. So I joined the show that September to learn his ropes so to speak, but also including my roller act and stilt walking. Joe never required clowning and that was fine by me.

There are very successful double acts in show business only because they understand each other off the stage as much as on the stage. In Joe Gandey I had found a man after my own heart! We were very different personalities – even poles apart – yet I understood and totally agreed with his philosophies and he the same with me. We did not have one cross word in the following three years that I toured with him.

I was absolutely impressed with the simplicity of the show’s promotional material – it was quite brilliant in fact. Peter Featherstone had done a great job. Whilst Sanger’s only toured within 50 miles of Piccadilly in London, Joe Gandey only toured within 50 miles of Piccadilly in Manchester! In fact he was personally so well known he was often referred to as ‘Joe’ by some of the public or council officials. Joe, being the son of Robert Gandey who had started the show 20 years previously, twenty years that had seen huge changes from horse drawn wagons and gas lighting in the streets to the Beatles and colour television; from 500 to 1000 Circus Variety Speciality acts reduced to about ten per cent of that number.

It was always his philosophy to have the complete tour booked, i.e., to close each season with the final ground arranged before he even started the tour so Peter had already booked the complete tour to October 1967. I then commenced booking the tour for conclusion in October 1968 and so it went until I left him in 1969 with his route booked for the following 1970 season that I booked for him during that winter.

I agreed to supply my balancing act plus stilt walking and to manage the advance publicity and for this he offered a very good salary plus a good bonus (!) should the business be good. It was most certainly good!

Upon planning the approach for the next season I suggested that we should put out more posters. He was exceptionally conscious of pennies! If someone asked for say, nails, he would enquire ‘how many do you need?’ and that we should market hard with the press – I had gained so much experience in that area. Joe was concerned about the press for he seemed to fail in getting say, positive coverage with it being a small circus but I finally convinced him that this would change and it did greatly with many full pages of photographs appearing in local papers – as the following list of (only some!) copies prove.

His young son was at school and visited from time to time and went into the ring with his father clowning. I remembered that old occasion when I was featured as ‘Britain’s Youngest Clown’ and how powerful that was so this idea was used often.

The photograph was for the Wirral press at New Ferry Park. The house numbers were so huge at times the artistes props were removed from the tent to allow more chairs to be put out! I am on the stilts, the two children with prop heads are of the circus the other two children were local also the dog was local but managed to have a press call.

I did the bill posting with his oldest son, perhaps taking another person in a second day should the place be large. Joe himself also did a special and precise form of marketing. Billing for Joe was such an easy task, with so many humorous incidents; one shop actually had the poster they had hung the previous year – in the same place on the wall! I simply replaced it. Another shop was closed so I put it in the letter box with the sound of a very large dog pulling it through. When I saw the same shop during the stay the shop keeper had hung it on the front widow minus a section eaten by the dog! On another occasion I went into a butchers shop and the butcher said ‘for old Joe of course, put it on the window, and here take this pound of sausages!’ That he then gave to me free of charge. The Gandey show was actually shown affection from the public at that time – a quality no other show could claim.

Joe Gandey was a methodical person and totally habitual. He would never move the show on a Sunday. ‘We have one day off so why be bothered by new children.’ He would not call a set time for a moving morning it would be adjusted to the distance.

The tent was up in two hours (I was not engaged there) and he would not carry one unnecessary item. Everything fitted to the transport available. He put a task to each person on the show and expected them to manage it for the year as like Billy Smarts would say ‘this is now your problem’. ‘So you need another light bulb?’  he would say, not ‘we!’ He would not allow one sweet paper to be left on any ground – nothing.

He hated the pasting of bills on walls and so did I. My personal business association with him was excellent and we did full house business week after week. Each Sunday morning we would discuss the next weeks business and put the arrived invoices on a table saying, ‘pay those and leave that one for another week!’ We would discuss the cash costings like poster tape exchanging pennies saying, ‘I will owe you 5 pence until next week!’ He always debated about site hire fees and stressed that £5 per day for the hire was his norm. I took a chance hiring one park for £12 per day and he said, ‘we are taking a chance with that cost!’

I also opened many new grounds previously not used by circuses. Luckily one being New Ferry Park on the Wirral that produced packing business for a full week, (we returned the following year) a location that introduced me to my future wife.

He toured a very small show by assumed standards but also ahead of its time with a big top seating seven hundred and about twelve artistes in the ring. All the vehicles were kept immaculate and washed, with paintwork by a professional sign writer. His opening speech to the audience would say ‘we do not claim to be a large circus.’ True, but it was certainly the best small circus and so ideal for galas that we had plenty of bookings coming in. Like my father he was not keen about the inclusion of wild animals for it would make things difficult – care wise more than anything else – and in any case why bother when we had full tents anyway? He was a born ‘ham’ in the nicest way, he thought that show-business was closer to nonsense than for causing stress and, like me, he thought minimum effort produced minimum stress. ‘If it works stick with it;’ ‘if it fails work at it or lose it.’ He was friendly with many Variety people, one being Charles Hawtrey with whom he worked pantomime with a few times. No need for him to to work in the winters but I am sure he did so for the company.

A need to move on.

During the visits to New Ferry Park in Wirral I became close to a pretty local bank employee when using that local branch. She was keen on circus and a great character and (unlike previous experiences!) most precise and reliable. She was most attractive. Being that the show never ventured far over a given month wesaw much of each other at weekends. During the latter part of the 1969 season I decided that with an attractive partner, we stood an excellent chance to obtain the best of summer show and Continental bookings that had eluded me thus far but I needed a season to practice more and to plan a better act with smarter props, great photos and marketing – this would take time and work but remaining with Joe would not allow this to happen. He would expect total commitment to the job in hand understandably. After much thought I wrote to him prior to Christmas 1969 with my planned outlook and he did understand being a good friend. I received this letter from him requesting that I continue to book the tour for the next season – 1970, and this I did accomplish.

Dear Tom
Thank you for the letter. It has come as a surprise that you have decided not to tour with us for next season. Of course Mary and I wish you both every health and happiness for the future. It is very good of you to continue the routing for me as you know I will look after you for doing it!
Farnworth Council telephoned to say that another circus had applied for their ground but with your application already with them, and because they know us so well, they have preferred us again. Please discuss with them the best dates. Thank you for a usual fine job in hand.

Kindest regards always

Joe and Mary.

Shortly before Christmas 1969 I contacted David Smart who was seeking a ringmaster for the following year. So Sheila and I was invited down to their winter quarters in Winkfield, Berkshire to discuss the 1970 season for them.

Two top Variety theatres played by the show with large acts added.


Author: Tom Sandow

born into showbusiness - full life entertaining, management, agency, engager of acts and artistes - show producer presenter.

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