The World’s First Motorized Circus Left Cincinnati on a Journey into Oblivion

Frank Spellman was a marvelous promoter, one of the best. The problem was, Frank was a circus manager, and he wasn’t very good at managing the circuses he promoted.

Image of motorized circus train, Motor Age Volume 31, Number 13 [29 March 1917]

Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

Image of motorized circus train, Motor Age, Volume 31, Number 13 [29 March 1917]It was Frank Spellman who was responsible for the most unusual circus parade in Cincinnati history. On Monday, April 22, 1918, more than a dozen horseless circus wagons motored up Central Avenue on their way to Toledo. This was the debut of Frank Spellman’s “U.S. Motorized Circus.” The Cincinnati Post [22 April 1918] exulted:

“Even the elephants will joy ride in ‘The World’s First and Only Automobile Circus’ which started on it’s career Monday from the Bode Wagon Works, 1655 Central-av. Oh-boy; oh-boy; it was some parade – the World’s Most Joyous Joy Ride.”

The Bode Wagon Works in the West End had produced elaborate horse-drawn circus wagons for 20 years when the Spellman order came in. The difference was that Spellman wanted his 16 wagons built on 3.5-ton gasoline-powered truck frames built by Kelly-Springfield. According to Joseph T. Bradbury, writing in Bandwagon, the magazine of the Circus Historical Association [Jan-Feb), 1962]:

“This large order for new parade equipment was the last ever completed by the Bode Wagon Co., in fact it was the last really large order of parade wagons ever built by any company in the country.”

The 16 trucks were decorated with ornately carved and gaudily painted “tableau” panels representing the continents and nations of the world. Renowned circus artist George Bellis, based in Wichita, designed the phantasmagorical panels that were then fabricated in Cincinnati by Albert Bode and his crew.

By the time the resplendent motorcade tootled north from Cincinnati, major national publications had already run extensive stories about the Motorized Circus. Scientific American [May 1917], Commercial Vehicle [18 February 1917], and Motor Age [29 March 1917] had all published glowing previews of the new show, as had newspapers from coast [San Francisco Chronicle] to coast [The New York Times 28 January 1917]:

“The plans are now well underway, and it is expected that the show will start on its season’s tour in the early part of May. One hundred three-and-a-half ton trucks and seventy-five trailers will be used to transport the show, and contracts for these have been closed with well-known makers. According to the manufacturer supplying the trucks the order makes a new record in single truck sales and the total runs close to $400,000.”

Image of motorized circus wagon with headline from Cincinnati Post - 22 April 1918
Image of motorized circus wagon with headline from Cincinnati Post – 22 April 1918

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The New York Times claimed that the Motorized Circus would have 100 trucks. Later articles claimed 150. Only 16 rolled out of the Bode Wagon factory in Cincinnati. Frank Spellman’s promotional skills were every bit as glorious as George Bellis’ tableaux.

The Times also predicted that the show would open in the early part of May 1917. Maybe Spellman believed it, but the world was at war in 1917, and the United States joined the fight on April 6 of that year. Raw materials rationing and labor shortages upended Spellman’s plans.

The trucks didn’t roll out of Cincinnati for another year, and then they sat in Toledo while Spellman burned through his investors’ money. Joseph T. Bradbury summarized a circus in jeopardy:

“The April 26, 1919, Billboard reported that Spellman had resigned as president of the U.S. Motorized Circus Corp. but had been retained with title of general director. The report was out that the stockholders were insisting the show go out and make some effort to operate. It was evident that the show was in financial difficulties and an attempted reorganization took place in August after it was decided to definitely open.”

And so, more than a year after an awe-inspiring wave of national publicity, a year after the delivery of its 16 motorized circus wagons, the newly reorganized “America’s Combined Motorized Circus” finally opened in Columbus, Ohio, on August 16, 1919. The Columbus Dispatch approved:

“Novel Circus Opens. For the first time in history Columbus witnessed a big circus parade in which the floats and cages were not drawn by horses. Instead handsomely decorated wagons were in reality camouflaged motor trucks. Three rings and two stages comprise the setting for the main show.”

After two days in Columbus, the Combined Motorized Circus rolled on to Newark, Ohio, for performances Monday, August 18, and was scheduled to play Tuesday, August 19, at Coshocton. The circus arrived late at Coshocton and found a delegation from Kelly-Springfield waiting to repossess the trucks. At that point, Spellman’s financial house of cards collapsed when it was revealed that he had no money left to pay his performers, much less the truck manufacturer.

Kelly-Springfield sold the trucks to a circus man in Ohio, who resold the tableaux to several other circuses, where some were lost, discarded or destroyed. The buyers mounted the panels on traditional horse-drawn wagons.

A fire at the Cole Brothers Circus headquarters in Rochester, Indiana, on February 20, 1940 destroyed all of the remaining Spellman tableaux, except for the France wagon. This last survivor can be seen at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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