By the time you're 92 and have become dean of circus band directors you really know how the music is supposed to sound. And how to introduce it:
"Ladies and gentlemen, the LIONS! Amazingly accomplished animals -- Bloodthirsty JUNGLE DEMONS educated beyond BELIEF!"
The bloodthirsty demons will not be present tonight, just the old circus pitches for them, but there will be the U.S. Army Band which is as good as a bunch of lions any time, conducted by Merle Evans who is up from Sarasota, Fla., for a rare concert on the West Terrace of the Capitol. It will begin at 8 p.m. After a hearty voice bellows about the lions the band will play some lion music. Same goes for elephants, high-wire artists and so on.
Evans was born in 1892, and was well known in band circles before the great Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was formed. His band played at the last public performance of Buffalo Bill Cody (Nov. 11, 1916) and when Ringling combined with B & B he led the band in its first season (1919) and kept right on for 18,250 performances before 159 million people and retired in 1969.
At the moment he has a black eye, stunning with his moon-white fringe of hair and handsome face. Got it from a fall while shaving a few days ago, but if he wanted to say it was a trophy from a barroom brawl you wouldn't question it. An air of substantial mischief surrounds this dean of oompah. The voice is vigorous as a starling chasing a flicker, and his memory seems never to have suffered any loss at all, but like the richest burgundies improved somewhat with the years.
"That Emmett Kelly," he said when talk got round to famous circus clowns. "We were both living at the old Hotel Belvedere in New York. He'd go out to market and get cucumbers, tomatoes, celery and all kinds of salad things plus a six-pack. Then at night he'd come home from the circus and bathe and get in his pajamas and spread all this stuff around him in bed. He never had a place to put the salt. Put it in his navel, yes sir, that's what he did, isn't that awful, but that's what he did" (followed by a series of hearty haw-haw-haws).
"Betty Hutton once made a movie about the circus and I was on hand and she hollered over, 'Take the band over there,' and I hollered back, 'OK.' Got paid $57 for that speaking part of one word. Must be the only guy alive that got paid for saying OK to Betty Hutton. One day Mr. De Mille -- "
Just here he was summoned elsewhere to get his picture made and Mr. De Mille got lost in the shuffle, but Evans grabbed his cane and said by golly his leg was a nuisance and he wished he was 18.
Col. Eugene W. Allen, leader and commander of the band that is usually called Pershing's Own, waited till Evans was out of the room in the big Brucker Hall building of Fort Myer (where the concert will be held in case of rain), and said Evans is an idol to everybody in the band business. He's conducted the Army Band a couple of times before, but Allen thinks tonight's concert will be a knockout. He said Evans is steady under pressure, too, and was commended by the governors of Connecticut and Massachusetts for his part in allaying panic at the terrible Hartford circus fire of 1944. "He kept the music going till the drumheads were on fire."
Evans returned and said yessir, the drumheads were on fire, but he felt it his duty to keep on with the music in that otherwise unstructured scene of chaos.
"Buffalo Bill was a good guy," Evans said, turning to more cheerful memories, "and a pretty good drinker. Kept his whiskey bottle in a bucket of ice. He went bankrupt with his Wild West Show in 1913 and after that they just paid him a flat fee to do a show. He'd introduce it and shoot a few balls. He did his shooting act using scattershot with a 20-inch spread. Since he might be a little bit drunk, you know. As he came on we always introduced him the same way. In the North we played 'Yankee Doodle' for him and in the South we played 'Dixie.' Went over very well in both cases.
"When I started with the circus there were five Ringling brothers. The last one, John, died in 1933. They were all musicians and pretty particular, so it was an honor to be chosen to lead the band. You wouldn't believe what we used to buy to feed the 1,400 people and 150 performing horses and 50 clowns. We had as many as 52 elephants once, and the acts we had in those days -- well, there's nothing like it now.
"You understand I wasn't always in the big time. I was born at Campbell, Mo., a really small place. I joined an outfit called Uncle Josh, and got $17 a week, and I handed out the pay to the orchestra and turned the sawmill in the sawmill act and did all kinds of things. I was once with the Cotton Blossom Showboat on the Mississippi, that was in 1910. We stayed pretty close to shore, you understand, but once a big storm came up and we were getting out into the main river. The captain said, 'Throw the anchor over,' and he was getting pretty excited and hollering around. A crewman said, 'There ain't any rope on it,' but the captain said, 'I don't care about that, I said throw the anchor over,' so we threw a $500 anchor overboard and it's still down there on the bottom in the middle of the Mississippi. I got $10 a week then, and I've done medicine shows where they sold stuff that would cure you of anything. We played creameries and lofts, all kinds of places.
"Once they were having a big religious revival meeting in Campbell, and everybody thought the world was going to end about midnight so people were pretty excited. I heard all about it from a fellow that played the tuba, and I thought wouldn't it be a good idea, if the world was going to end, for me to play Gabriel. So I made up a lot of really fancy bugle calls and sounded off at midnight." He's not sure how these were received since he finished his trumpeting and left town.
"I live by myself since my wife died three years ago. I eat like a horse. Do I love watermelon. There's a wonderful couple live near me, really fine people. The man weighs 420 pounds and his wife runs a big beauty parlor with a lot of operators. She comes over once a week and does my laundry, and I could do it myself if she'd show me how you work the thing, but she says never mind and does it all herself.
"I live by this pond that has Muscovy ducks, great big things. I call one of them Grandpa and pay special attention to him. He sits on my knee. There are two batches of babies, 25 of them altogether. I get two loaves of bread and feed them. I just go out and holler and they come.
"Once in Jackson, Tenn., out from Memphis, we were unloading the circus when we had Gargantua. He was an 800-pound gorilla and could crush a tire as easy as crush a bag of popcorn. There were two guys came up and said, 'We sure would like to see that 800-pound guarantee you've got.' A lot of people never could pronounce Gargantua.
"I don't guess you ever knew our sea elephant. We paid $200,000 for him. Had six horses to pull him. Then we had some fine Ubangi women in an act, you know the ones with big lips. They needed a drum, the old one wore out, and they said in Africa they used an elephant ear for a drumhead. I said there was no way I could kill one of our elephants for a drum, so we got a regular one. Anyway, one of the Ubangi ladies took a shine to me and gave me a postcard that said 'I love you' on it. Still have it down in Sarasota.
"I still get around a good bit. I was just out in Bloomington, and was in South Dakota a week ago. Saturday I'll be in a circus parade in Milwaukee. I don't want to do too much. In the parade I'll ride in a surrey. Sure hope it has a fringe on top. Keeps the sun off your eyes."