Circus Ring of Fame Wheel Plaque

Alfred Court

Inducted into the Ring of Fame: 2000

Circus Profession: Animal Trainer

Born: 1883

Died: 1977

Alfred Court Circus Ring Of Fame Foundation inductee plaque

By Dominique Jando Circopedia Alfred Court (1883-1977) is perhaps the most
remarkable French circus personality of the first half of the twentieth
century. Beginning his career as an outstanding acrobat, he became a
successful, yet adventurous, circus entrepreneur, first in Mexico and later
in Europe, before ending as one of the greatest wild animal trainers of all
times—and as such, a major circus star in Europe and America. He
was born into a wealthy family in Marseille, France, on January 1, 1883. His
father, Joseph Court-Payen, worked for the family’s soap business
(Marseille is France’s soap industry capital), and his mother was
the daughter of the Marquis de Clapier, a rich aristocrat well introduced in
political circles. Alfred was the youngest of a family of ten children.
Considering his pedigree, chances that Alfred Court would become a circus
acrobat were slim at best. A strong-willed kid, young Alfred was by no means
rebellious, and by his own account, he had a happy childhood. But he was the
last-born of a large brood, and was not necessarily expected to join in the
family business. This gave him some freedom of mind. Furthermore, his parents
never discouraged his early passion for circus and acrobatics—a
passion he shared with his older brother, Jules (1880-1955). Circa 1890,
Alfred and Jules Court were sent to a Jesuit school in the Prado, a seaside
borough of Marseille. Alfred and Jules also started training in gymnastics,
which was all the rage among young men at the time: Society amateur circuses
were flourishing then—like the famous Cirque Molier in
Paris—and these were also the times when another sports enthusiast,
the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, revived the Olympic Games (in 1896). Over the
years, Court developed an amazing strength, concealed by his slender build,
and an outstanding talent on horizontal bars. An arduous gymnastics
specialty, horizontal bars are also one of the most difficult acrobatic acts
in the circus repertoire, and is rarely seen today. Yet it was relatively
popular and quite alluring in the 1890s, and this was the specialty young
Alfred chose to embrace for his upcoming circus debut. At age sixteen, Alfred
Court partnered with an acrobat named Alfred Lexton, and embarked on a circus
career that was to last a half-century. He left home with the blessing of his
parents, promising his mother to write every day—which he dutifully
did until her death, when he was in his forties. Under the name of Egelton
(originally spelled “Egelthon”), which had a fashionable English
sound, he made his professional debut on January 4, 1899 (according to his
memoirs) at the Palais de la Jetée, a vaudeville house on a peer
on the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice. The act of Lexton & Egelton
was performed on three parallel horizontal bars, as was generally the custom.
Alfred “Egelton” Court was a perfectionist and trained
indefatigably, a quality that, to Court’s dismay, his partner
didn’t share; in spite of his young age, Court was already a
remarkable barriste (the French word for horizontal bar acrobats), able to
perform practically all the most difficult tricks in the repertoire. After
their stint at the Palais de la Jetée, Lexton & Egelton
were offered an engagement with the Cristiani circus, of the famous Italian
equestrian family, which had just returned from Spain, and was traveling
through France on its way back to Italy. Thus Alfred Court made his circus
debut in Bayonne (in the southwest of France) with Circo Cristiani in 1899.
The act of Lexton & Egelton was enjoying a successful run, until
Alfred Court had a bad fall, serious enough to incapacitate him for several
weeks. Alfred Lexton couldn’t stay without work for that long and
he took advantage of an offer to work in Germany. Court and Lexton parted
ways amicably, and the Lexton and Egelton act ceased to exist. Without a
partner, Alfred Court worked for a few months with a small traveling theater
company, and then returned to Marseille. Back home, Alfred Court teamed up
with his brother Jules and a remarkable lightweight acrobat,
“Féfé” Gavazza. The new “Egeltons”
went on to perform successfully all over Europe and finally with the popular
circus Pinder , with which they toured the French provinces from 1905 to1908.
At circus Pinder, Alfred met his future wife, the talented equestrienne
Renée Vasserot . Circus Producer At the same time, between
engagements, the brothers Court tried their hand at producing, presenting
their own Cirque Egelton shows in temporary wooden circus structures (known
as constructions ) erected in French provincial towns during seasonal fairs.
They also developed a “Looping the Loop” thrill act on a bicycle (a
popular type of attraction at the time), which they quickly abandoned: Like
all attractions of that genre, it was impeded by cumbersome equipment that
was difficult to transport and to install. Jules Court left the
Egeltons’ bar act at the end of the 1908 season, and went on to
create a talent agency. The brothers, however, had decided they would have
their own traveling circus as soon as they had gathered a sufficient capital.
Meanwhile, in 1909, their home city of Marseille gave them the authorization
to build a wooden circus construction on the Place Saint-Michel. The new
Cirque Egelton was a comfortable and elaborate structure that could
accommodate 3,800 spectators. Until 1913, it offered remarkable circus
programs that met with great success. But these programs, which changed
regularly, were more expensive than Alfred and Jules Court could truly
afford, and the brothers had to declare bankruptcy in 1912. They reorganized
as Cirque Standard for the 1913 season, their last in that building. In the
winter of 1912, the Court brothers had also toured in association with the
famous Italian daredevil and circus entrepreneur, Ugo Ancilotti (1869-1925),
with a traveling circus under a big top, the Cirque Impérial Russe
. It was a short-lived venture—not too surprisingly since the
Russian flavor of the program had been created by giving pseudo-Russian names
to the performers; Renée Vasserot, for example, was billed as
“Madame Vasseroff.” Alfred Court had developed a taste for circus
under canvas at Cirque Pinder, and owning his own traveling big top was what
he truly wanted. He began to make plans for the creation of a Zoo Zirkus
(with this German spelling), but everything came to naught when the Great War
started in August 1914 after the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke
Franz Ferdinand of Austria. By then, however, Alfred Court had already left
Europe, and was performing in the United States with the Ringling Bros.
Circus . The Orpingtons And Circo Europeo After his brother had called it
quits, Alfred Court had created a new hand-to-hand acrobatic act, The
Orpingtons, with his wife, Renée, and a student of his, Louis
Vernet. It was again a remarkable act, showcasing Alfred Court’s
remarkable strength. It had eventually caught the attention of Charles
Ringling and, in May 1914, The Orpingtons debuted with the Ringling Bros.
Circus in Chicago. The Orpingtons had a two-year contract with Ringling. For
the 1915 season, they added a perch-pole act to their repertoire, which they
performed in the center ring. During the winter months, they played dates in
Cuba, where they eventually got a long-term engagement with Antonio Vicente
Pubillones , in his popular Circo Pubillones. They performed there in 1918
with their hand-to-hand and perch-pole acts, and shared the bill with Alfredo
Codona , who had just left the Siegrist-Silbons troupe and was performing his
own flying trapeze act for the first time. During this engagement, Alfred
Court had an insider look at the sometimes improbable way circuses operated
in Central America—and he didn’t fail to notice their
attractive financial prospective. At the end of 1918, he joined forces with
the Mexican Mijares family to create the Circo Europeo , a show with a
2,000-seat big top they toured by train and boat in remote Mexican areas that
rarely saw circuses, with short incursions into Honduras and Guatemala. It is
during this Mexican tour that Alfred Court became a wild-animal trainer:
Unable to find a replacement for a drunken lion trainer he had fired, he
decided to present the act himself. He had nurtured a keen interest in big
cats for a while, and this experience would transform this interest into a
passion that lasted a lifetime, and would practically cost him the circuses
he later created in France. Circo Europeo had secured the services of a
legendary and flamboyant Mexican circus impresario, Don Juan
Treviño, who was in reality a French expatriate from Bordeaux.
Treviño, a street-smart entrepreneur who had created his own Circo
Treviño in 1897, had fallen out of luck, and served Court as a
mixture of advance man and fixer, using his vast experience in touring
circuses around Mexico—as well as his considerable talents at
swindling unwary locals. When World War I came to an end with the Treaty of
Versailles in June 1919, Alfred and Renée Court decided to return
to France, and Court sold the equipment of Circo Europeo at a low price to
his friend Don Treviño. Court’s partner, Louis Vernet,
remained with Treviño in Mexico, where he created a perch-pole act
with a new partner named Evans. Back to Paris, and flush with American
dollars, Court revived his association with the aging Ugo Ancilotti. They ran
for a short while a tenting circus that opened in Versailles in 1920, and
began touring the French provinces. This new association was short lived:
Ancilotti was ill (he would die a few years later, in 1925), and he quickly
sold his interests in the company (notably its equipment) to Alfred Court.
The Zoo Circus Meanwhile, Court had resumed his acrobatic training with his
wife and a new partner, Lucien Goddart. Most importantly, he had revived his
work on the Zoo Zirkus project, which had been interrupted by the war. The
circus title was changed to Zoo Circus, which certainly sounded better at
this point to French ears, and with Ancilotti’s equipment as a
foundation, it was now ready to go. Jules Court came aboard to take care of
the administrative side of the project. The Zoo Circus came to life in Limoges,
France, in the spring of 1921. It was, in many aspects, an original concept
in France: A circus with a vast menagerie (inspired at first by the German
circus of Carl Hagenbeck —thus the original title, Zoo
Zirkus—but also, undoubtedly, by the American circuses Court had
seen in the United States). It traveled daily with the help of a fleet of
motorized vehicles—at a time when French circuses customarily moved
either by train, or, like Pinder, with horse-drawn carriages. The menagerie
was contained in a single large tent adjacent to the big top, as was the
custom in the United States, and it included ethnic exhibitions, a trademark
of Zirkus Hagenbeck, and sideshow attractions like those Court had seen at
the Ringling Bros. Circus. The menagerie, in its first season, was still a
little light and, oddly, there was no cage act in the performance until
December, when the German trainer Otto Sailer-Jackson was hired with a group
of tigers from Circus Krone . Sailer-Jackson was a celebrated cat trainer
from the Hagenbeck school. He stayed with the Zoo Circus for the Holiday
season, long enough to give Alfred Court the opportunity to observe his work
attentively, which he would emulate, down to the “cowboy” costume.
The Hagenbeck method consisted of using the cats’ natural abilities
to create acts that emphasized the animals’ innate
talents—instead of simply showing the confrontational image of
“man vs. beast” favored by the so-called “lion tamers” of
the nineteenth century. The Court menagerie expanded in 1922 with the
purchase of a large group of polar bears from Hagenbeck, which Alfred Court
presented himself (as Egelton) the following season, in a program that also
included the seven lions of Martha-la-Corse , and the group of lions and
tigers presented by her husband, “Le Dompteur Marcel ” (Marcel
Chaffreix). Martha-la-Corse and Marcel were well known in the traveling
menagerie business, and the addition of their acts and their animal
collection to the Zoo Circus lineup helped at last to fully justify its name.
Alfred Court eventually developed his own wild animal collection. At the end
of 1924, he began advertising cage acts for rent to other circuses, including
a group of ten tigers, another of eighteen lions, his own group of twelve
polar bears, a group of ten panthers, and a mixed group of wolves and hyenas.
The latter was one of the groups presented within the menagerie tent itself
during the tour. The immediate aftermath of World War I was a booming period
for European circuses, and the Zoo Circus steadily grew in importance,
becoming one of France’s premier tenting circuses. By 1925, the
menagerie boosted a collection of 25 lions, 8 tigers, 9 hyenas, 7 wolves, 3
cougars, 12 polar bears, 16 panthers and leopards, 5 jaguars, 2 cheetahs, and
an extensive assemblage of exotic animals, including antelopes, llamas, and
camels, down to monkeys, porcupines and mongooses. Court had now in his
employ two trainers to assist him, who would in time build brilliant careers
on their own: Vojtech Trubka , who presented the polar bears, and Johnny de
Kok , who was in charge of a group of ten lions. In time, several others
would come and work with Court. Court himself presented his tigers, and was
now using his real name. Unlike his German and American models, however, the
Zoo Circus never had a significant herd of elephants: The largest Court ever
lined up was a group of eight pachyderms presented by his brother-in-law,
Eugène Vasserot, in 1928. The Many Circuses Of Alfred Court The
1927 season marked the Zoo Circus’s apogee—immediately
followed by the beginning of its decline. His initial success had led Alfred
Court to expand beyond his means—something that had strained his
relations with his brother Jules. Consequently, the brothers decided to
create two separate units of the Zoo Circus, one touring in France, under
Jules’s management, the other in Spain, under Alfred’s
management. This move resulted in a very profitable season, both tours having
been successful, with the Courts’ vast zoological collection
supported by the income of two circuses instead of a single one. The
following year, in association with a French circus entrepreneur, Pierre
Périé, they sent a Barnum’s Circus on the
road. It was a three-ring affair that professed to be the American original,
but with a program that was not, by any stretch of the imagination, up to
par: The enterprise didn’t last long. Meanwhile, the Zoo Circus
continued its tour, with Alfred Court presenting the first of his remarkable
mixed-animals cage acts, which comprised ten lions, two tigers, a cougar,
seven brown and white bears, and a couple of great Danes. At the end of 1928,
the Courts set up their three-ring big top, renamed Arène
Olympique , in their hometown of Marseille. This time, they filled the rings
with a truly strong show, which ended with three simultaneous cage acts: A
group of twelve lions presented by Vargas, the mixed group, which now
included twenty-three animals, presented by Max Stolle in the center ring,
and Alfred Court himself with his group of eight tigers. With close to fifty
high-quality acts, the Arène Olympique show was impressive indeed,
and at the beginning of its run, the audience came en masse. But the weather
changed suddenly, and a surprisingly cold winter hit the habitually balmy
Mediterranean city of Marseille. The tent was not heated, and the audience
quickly dwindled. The show folded after one month. It was a financial
disaster. A severe cold front enveloped Europe that winter. When Alfred and
Jules Court tried to resume the 1929 season under the Zoo Circus big top, it
collapsed under a snowstorm. To try to raise money quickly, they revived
their three-ring big top and the Barnum’s Circus deception, hoping
that, with the proper advertising, the paying public would take the bait.
They toured it until November, but with a program that didn’t match
what the advertising promised. Meanwhile, the Zoo Circus hit the road again
under the management of Alfred’s nephew, Charles Court, with a show that was
again what the public had been accustomed to: In spite of some good acts,
there was no cage act, and the animal contingent was reduced to a
chimpanzee act, and two equestrian displays: To raise money, Alfred Court had
placed his wild animal acts with other circuses. At the end of the season,
the Courts were in a bad financial shape. The postwar boom had ended, and the
competition had become fierce. In 1930, the Zoo Circus went back on tour, and
the Courts rented the name Wilhelm Hagenbeck from the Hagenbecks, and sent a
second unit on the road with a show that, this time, was true to the
Hagenbecks’ name and reputation: Exotic tableaux were interspersed throughout
the performance, and the second half was dedicated to three important cage
acts— Willy Hagenbeck ’s sixteen polar bears presented by
Carl Herbig, Court’s tigers presented by Kovack, and a mixed group
of ten lions, four bears, two leopards, two cougars, two hyenas, two wolves
and two German mastiffs presented by Max Stolle. The Cirque Wilhelm Hagenbeck
played Paris in July with good success. At the end of the season, the Courts
had managed to be in the black again. The Zoo Circus and the Cirque Wilhelm
Hagenbeck went back on the road in 1931, but, this time, the business was
disappointing. The Courts sent only one show on tour the following year, a
tenting affair they called Robinson And His Savage Tribes . It was a mixture
of Wild West exhibition and classical circus, whose acts were all sprinkled
with an exotic flavor. Unfortunately, Robinson’s special blend of
Wild West and fake exoticism failed to attract the public attention, and the
Courts returned to the Zoo Circus title, thinking that it had better chances
to attract audiences to the big top. But it was perhaps too late: At the end
of 1932, the situation was beyond repair; Alfred and Jules Court folded their
tents and filed for bankruptcy. Alfred Court, Cat Trainer The brothers parted
ways. Jules Court became Cirque Pinder’s administrative manager,
while Alfred began training cat acts that he could rent to various circuses.
He had two trainers in his employ, Vojtech Trubka , who presented his group
of tigers, and Violette d’Argens , with a group of lions. But his
directorial ambitions had not left him, and he was ready to launch yet
another circus. In association with Pierre Perié and Jean Roche,
he created the Cirque Olympia , which was to tour the south of France and
then travel in Spain. It was a very modest circus that hit the road in June
1934—although its publicity inflated considerably its importance.
But the Spanish audiences were not fooled, and the show eventually folded in
July. In December, Court transformed what was left of his circus into a
traveling menagerie, which he toured for one season, in 1935. His days as a
circus owner were over. Alfred Court started again working as a performer. He
presented La Paix dans la Jungle (“Peace in the Jungle”)—a
group of three lions, two tigers, two leopards, three polar bears, and three
black bears—at Paris’s Cirque Medrano in February 1936.
It was the beginning of a very successful international career as a wild
animal trainer. Meanwhile, his other cage acts were still engaged with
various circuses all over Europe. The following year (1937), Alfred Court
trained a new group of fifteen small cats that comprised nine leopards
(including three black specimen), a rarely seen snow leopard, four cougars
and a black jaguar. He was now working in Europe’s most important
circuses and variety theaters, including the legendary Wintergarten in Berlin
and the Empire Music-Hall Cirque in Paris. When World War II started in
Europe in September 1939, Court was finishing the season at the Tower Circus
in Blackpool, England. His three other acts were scattered in Scandinavia:
two mixed groups and the tiger act. He managed to gather his troupes and
bring the rest of his menagerie and his employees to England. Earlier, Court
had received an offer from John Ringling North to come to the United States
and work with his animals on The Greatest Show On Earth . He had refused at
first, but these were different times: When North reiterated his offer, Court
took it. Circus Star in America In Liverpool, Alfred Court embarked eighty
animals, twenty employees, and all his equipment on the West-Chatala , which
took sail for the New World. He and his wife embarked soon after on the
Manhattan in Genoa, Italy, which was close to Nice, where they now lived.
They arrived in Sarasota, Florida, where Ringling Bros. and Barnum &
Bailey had its winter quarters, in time for rehearsals before the season
opening at Madison Square Garden, in New York, on April 4, 1940. Court opened
the program with three simultaneous cage acts—three mixed groups
presented by Harry and May Kovar , Fritz Schulz , and Court himself in the
center arena. Other trainers would come to assist or replace them, including
Damoo Dhotre , Joseph Walsh, and Court’s nephew, Willy Storey (who
would be his last apprentice) among others. Court’s contract,
signed for two years, was renewed at the end of the 1941 season. But there
had been changes: In August, a fire had destroyed the menagerie tent; more
than sixty circus animals died. Court’s cages were usually kept
behind the big top for the performance, and his animals were not injured. But
the incident resulted in an internal crisis among the shareholders of the
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey corporation (all members of the
Ringling family), which led John Ringling North to resign as president of the
circus. His cousin, Robert Ringling, an opera singer, took the reins. As fate
would have it, Robert Ringling eventually presided over a far greater tragedy
than the menagerie fire: On July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, a fire
destroyed the big topduring a performance. There were 168 victims, among whom
84 children, and 487 others suffered burns or injuries. It had happened soon
after Court’s three-ring display, and the steel tunnels that had
linked the outside cages to the steel arenas in the rings were still in
place; many deaths occurred when panicked spectators piled up against one of
these tunnels, which obstructed a narrow exit. In his memoirs, Court blamed
the safety code that was then in place: the size and distribution of the
exits were inadequate for the 12,000-seat tent of the giant circus. He had
himself complained about the narrowness of the corridors where the tunnels
leading to the side rings were set up: His helpers had barely enough room to
move between the tunnels and the bleachers, and this proximity put them
constantly at risk from being mauled by the cats they led back and forth in
the narrow space. But, as they say, “the show must go on,” and so
it went. For the 1945 season, Alfred Court had noted that Robert Ringling
liked to see pretty showgirls in the ring with practically every act. He
offered to create an act with twelve leopards and twelve dancers together in
the cage. The number was eventually reduced to six courageous girls, and the
act was presented in the center ring by Willy Storey and Damoo Dhotre. By
then, Court, who was sixty-two, had completely retired from the ring. In May,
the Germans surrendered, and the War in Europe was over. At the end of the
season, Court disposed of some of his animals, and he returned to France at
the beginning of 1946. He later sold what was left of his menagerie to the
Amar brothers, including the group of small cats presented by Damoo
Dhotre—who returned from the United States in 1949. Then,
Renée and Alfred Court retired definitely to their villa in Nice.
A prolific raconteur, Court began to write his memoirs, parts of which were
published in various magazines, and much later, in 2007, edited as a book.
Some of what concerns his career as an animal trainer was also published in
book form in France, England, Germany and the United States. But the bulk of
his writings remains unpublished. On December 30, 1974, the Jury of the first
International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo , presided by Prince Rainier III
of Monaco, awarded Alfred Court a Gold Clown in tribute to his exceptional
career. A few days later, Prince Rainier, an amateur cat trainer himself,
went to visit Court in his villa in Nice and presented the
ninety-one-year-old cat trainer with the award. Alfred Court was back in the
limelight for one last time, and his legend got an ultimate boost. He passed
away three years later, on July 1, 1977. He was laid to rest in the Caucade
cemetery in Nice, his final hometown.