By Ralph Hood
Wife Gail and I are fascinated with circuses, and that’s how I met Cal Townsend, then over 80 years old and known as The Grand Old Man of the Circus.
Over the years Cal did just about every job on the circus. He was a noted craftsman. If you wanted the very best—and were in no hurry—Cal built it. I once owned a pickup truck with a Cal-built cover. It was a work of art, built of wood, covered with canvas, then painted and repainted. It was years old when I got it, and still seemed brand new years later.
Cal “opened” the side show with a funny routine. He pointed to the huge signs advertising the sideshow acts, then told the people to “Ignore the signs. These are just the signs we happened to have in winter quarters and they have no connection to what’s inside this tent. However, if I—personally—tell you a certain act is inside, you will absolutely see that person inside—unless he got drunk and can’t perform or got picked up last night by the local police.” People laughed and bought tickets just to see what really was inside.
Cal was a performer himself He really got the crowd laughing when he sat in the audience, loudly mocked one of the acrobatic acts, then came out of the audience and into the ring to prove that he could do that act himself. He made a fool of himself, and there’s no fool like a professional fool! The audience loved it and laughed uproariously! Everybody loved Cal.
He seemed agile and spry for a man over 80. Once I stopped by a huge arena where the circus was playing and found Cal ice skating, for crying out loud, and doing it very well.
You could ask Cal anything about the circus and he would answer with some fascinating story. He once described to me exactly how the old “medicine” shows came to town and sold miracle elixirs. Medicine shows were way before my time, but I was fascinated by Cal’s explanation.
Most of all Cal was delightful. He wrote a song once, and sang it to everyone who would listen, but it was never published. While researching for this column I called one of Cal’s best friends, Floyd Bradbury. Between us, all we could remember of the song were the few words, “I’m a traveling man, you’re a stay-at-home girl.” After he sang it to someone, he always said, “Of course, I have to get a real singer to sing it.”
Among all of his other skills, Cal was a professional sign painter. He took his brushes and paint on the road, and during his “spare time” he might go downtown and repaint store signs for extra money—and him over 80!
I wish I could visit Cal today, just to hear him tell stories, but he died years ago, and even his death told a funny story.
Here’s that final Cal story. It turned out that he wasn’t over 80 at all, but was only 67 years old at the time of death! Evidently, he had just enjoyed being the Grand Old Man of the Circus! As his friends said, “Cal fooled us one more time!”