By Delores Hanney
Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse had a special affinity with the four-footed ones of the earth. For some men this might have translated into life as a sheep shearer, contrarily he was set onto a gaudier path as the owner of the Al G. Barnes Circus & Wild Animal Zoo. The commencement of his career as a showman was decidedly downscale, consisting as it did of a pony, a phonograph and a picture machine but it grew to require 40 railroad cars to transport the hundreds of entertainers, trainers, workers and animals on their 35,000-mile seasonal circuit mostly through the western United States and Canada.
In 1911, with circuses the most popular type of public amusement, Abbot Kinney cooked up a deal with Al G. Barnes for his traveling tented circus to winter in Venice. In consequence, late that November it arrived in the form of a fabulous parade with Barnes in full impresario mode riding atop Tusko – a ten-foot tall, seven-ton Asian elephant with extravagant nine-foot tusks – behind him a long stream of the circus’ flamboyant acts and attractions.
Abbot Kinney and Al G. Barnes with Elephants
The populace went wild! They could hardly wait to fill the seats for the four electrifying performances that would follow over the next couple of days. Later on there would be three weeks of Venice shows.
The roster of amazement-makers left no attendee disappointed! But, aside from geeks and freaks, people were the supporting cast and people-focused acts were not what Barnes was really up to. His circus was about trained animals and boasted more than in all the other circuses combined; among them fierce bears and lions, boxing kangaroos and juggling seals, singing mules and musical pigeons. There were scores of galloping horses carrying multiple species of performing passenger (though not all at once), Wally the orangutan and his kith and kin, Lotus the hippo.
The most famed of the show’s entertainments was Mabel Stark and her tigers.
Circus Poster of Mabel Stark with Two Tigers
Mabel was tiny, just 100 pounds; typically tigers weigh in at 550 pounds or more and are not reputed to be the most mild mannered of felines. But there she would be, inside a ring, in the company of ten or twelve of them, with nothing but a buggy whip between her and unqualified disaster. Several times she was seriously mauled and sliced. Rajah was the most beloved of her tigers, with him she developed the first-ever tiger vs. tamer ersatz wrestling match to well and truly awe the circus audience.
Mabel Stark with 12 Tigers
During their snowbirding months in Venice, Mabel and Rajah would be seen together peacefully walking along the sandy beach. On blessedly rare occasions other of the circus’ wild animals were also seen unconfined: those times when elephants or camels escaped to thunder about on the pier and the streets of their winter homeplace, precipitating eruptions of pulse-racing drama.
Between this and the noise and the riffraffy behaviors by some of the circus employees, the townies became disenchanted with the wintering arrangements. The presence of the circus, through their winter hiatus, had definitely kicked up the coin in the city strongbox thanks to the spending of circus folks locally, the outlays made on materials for repairs, replacements and general gussying up of costumes and gear, and by the spreading around of cash on the part of visitors drawn to Venice by the circus.
With the 101 Wild West Show, the Al G. Barnes Circus produced a Valentine’s ball that raised oodles for community charities. It provided animals and humans for Kinney’s annual New Years Eve parades and for the parade in celebration and gratitude at the ending of World War I. Yet still came the point when the influence of financial enhancement no longer held sway.
And so – in 1920 – Barnes purchased 120 acres of land on Washington Boulevard between Venice and Culver City for his band of astonishments’ new winter quarters. Just seven years later the population of the area had grown exponentially with people who didn’t like the circus as a neighbor instigating another move, to Baldwin Park this time.
The American Circus Corporation purchased the Al G. Barnes Circus in 1929 for a million dollars. That very same year it was further swallowed up into the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus. Al G. Barnes, himself, inconspicuously sallied off into the sunset.
He died in 1931.