In 1882, Andrew and Clarence Cozad began touring a basic dog and pony show in vaudeville, but their mother Lucy didn’t want them to take the family name into show business, so they changed their last name to “Norris”. The Norris Bros. Dog & Pony Show grew by leaps and bounds, with 40 dogs and 70 ponies, along with the addition of trained monkeys, ducks and goats.
Norris’ approach was to encourage a playful training environment between the animals and humans performing, and the show was a sheer delight. This so impressed the famous opera singer Dame Nellie Melba that she required her own Irish settler, Lionel, to receive a “classical training”, who toured with the Norris Co. This lucrative tent show took place in Santa Cruz at Dolphin Baseball Park (now the main jetty parking lot) and later in a parking lot near Ocean Street and Soquel Avenue, across from Vienna’s beer gardens.
But a chronic illness forced Andrew to sell his interest to HS Rowe in 1898, although Andrew toured with the show whenever his strength permitted. The show, now called “Norris & Rowe Circus,” doubled in 1900 to 300 animals, including the world’s only trained zebra and the boa constrictor. While Fargo the pygmy elephant, at just 36 inches tall and 1,000 pounds, posed little of a challenge for Jumbo, Fargo was billed as the world’s smallest educated elephant. Fargo had a clown act performed with a pet monkey named Coco and a clown named Jargo who Fargo and Coco constantly played pranks on. That year, the circus toured the Paris International Exposition of 1900, bringing back a worldview of cultural performances.
The show grew from two boxcars in 1900 to four in 1901 and then to eight in 1902. But 1902 was known for its torrential rains in Santa Cruz. As the tent show went on, some animals got entangled in muddy spots inside the tent. The ringmaster joked: “Gentlemen will now circulate among you and hand out life jackets!” The seal that appeared did not want to come out of the rain. But the tiger hated the storm and fled to the Eastside, causing a sleepless night. It was eventually captured on the grounds of the Branciforte school.
The circus initially made Oakland their winter home, but lost some expensive animals due to bad weather, so in 1901 they leased the San Jose Agricultural Park, which seemed to be having similar problems. That year Andrew Norris attended his Santa Cruz church retreat at the Garfield Park Christian Campgrounds (now Circles on Woodrow Street) and purchased a camp cabin.
Norris complained about his treatment in San Jose and for several years received offers to move his winter quarters to Santa Cruz. At one point, Andrew used his old name to revive the “Cozad’s Dog & Pony Show” as an industry attraction because it was the easiest to climb and made cash with its comical sketches of dogs, ponies, and monkeys.
But Rowe’s circus vision had simply outgrown the San Jose space and had evolved into a two-ring circus that toured in 15 boxcars with 350 employees, making Norris & Rowe the “fourth largest circus in the world.” (March 9, 1905 Sentinel). Fred Swanton’s 1891 Vue de l’Eau Trolley Park had abandoned its Westside “casino” and ballfield in 1904 for new facilities on the Boardwalk. So a syndicate consisting of FA Hihn, Duncan McPherson, Sam Leask etc. bought the 7 acre property from Woodrow & Pelton for $5,000 to be compensated by Norris & Rowe. In 1904, Clarence Norris built his elegant two-story home in Garfield Park called “Colonial Cottage” for $2,500, where his mother and Andrew lived. It was designed for entertainment.
With an additional $5,000, Norris & Rowe added improvements to a blacksmith shop, wagon shop, studio for decorating floats and canvas signs, and a “ring barn” that houses the circus school for animal and performer training that is open to spectators is. The Norris & Rowe Zoo was home to over 300 animals, only a portion of which toured each year. Rowe’s favorite was his two-year-old tigress “Babe” with beautifully stripes, who had always been gentle and playful with him. The already existing “casino” became a restaurant, office and curio museum. Future plans called for an auditorium “hippodrome” to replace the tented arena.
Not all performers settled in Santa Cruz, but a “circus colony” of shacks sprang up around Vue de l’Eau Park and the grounds of the Tabernacle. These included a 30-inch tall “Princess Nouma”, a “Leopard” family with mottled skin, and a wizard. There were riders, acrobats, aerialists, stunt cyclists, clowns and musicians. The Negro brass band augmented the ranks of the African Methodist-Episcopal Church, with musicians marrying local girls. The “Congress of Nations” presented acts from abroad, with German, Cossack, Eskimo, Bedouin, Scottish, Turkish and Japanese artists. Multilingualism was also required for animals trained in other languages. The Russian trick cyclists and Japanese acrobats were a curiosity in the 1904-05 seasons during the Russo-Japanese War.
Each season opened in March with tent shows in Santa Cruz and Watsonville before touring. These included parades with some floats drawn by elephants, Shetland ponies, ostriches, llamas, geese and, for the first time, zebras and camels. Nicknamed the “Pride of the West,” the circus promoted its Santa Cruz headquarters on tours from coast to coast, including Mexico, Canada and parts of Europe. The performers weren’t paid until the circus returned to Santa Cruz, so they spent much of their money locally.
In 1906, the circus train scaled the snow-capped High Sierras, then stopped when they entered a tunnel. Upon investigation, it was found that a cage had been thrown from the flatcar and shattered, leaving two bears dead. HS Rowe saw that they were partially eaten and found his tigress Babe was loose. Upon seeing Babe, Rowe’s attempts to capture his old friend were thwarted when Babe captured him and pinned him to the ground. Growling, she started biting his head, but didn’t like the snow, either on her feet or in her mouth. Realizing this, Rowe lowered his head deep into the snow and yelled on his failing breath, “Shoot her!” A gunman shot Babe twice in the body, only distracting her, and she ran down the mountain, pursued by his men . Rowe was saved, and Babe didn’t look any worse for her bullets as she recovered to start a family in Santa Cruz with the tiger Nero.
After the 1906 earthquake, they held a benefit show in several affected cities, as they did for a cyclone-hit Kansas city. The earthquake forced San Francisco’s Chutes Amusement Park to sell its expansive menagerie to Norris & Rowe, causing the circus to grow to 500 animals and 500 performers, traveling in 40 double-length wagons and spending $4,500 a day. Three months after the earthquake, Andrew Norris fell ill in Fresno, and his wife rushed to his side. But then she suffered a hernia, was hospitalized and died four days after leaving Santa Cruz. Andrew Norris underwent surgery but found little relief from his ailments.
In December 1907, Andrew’s mother returned from a tour of the continent to find Andrew depressed about circus expenses. She hoped to cheer him up, but he felt overwhelmed and went upstairs to bed. Then they suddenly heard a muffled noise and rushed into his bedroom, where they found him slumped to one side. But as his mother gently picked him up, she cried out in horror when she realized he had shot himself in the head.
Unfortunately, he was three months away from hearing the national press name of Norris & Rowe, one of America’s top three circuses of 1908, after Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. Norris & Rowe had a record run in San Francisco alone, recording 60 consecutive performances . Her clown “Mickey Feeley” stunned with his standing double somersault. But even more amazing was when the Russian consulate in San Francisco discovered that Mickey was actually Prince Romanoff Pertowski, who fled Russia when his public criticism labeled him an enemy of Tsar Nicholas branded.
On February 27, 1908, Rowe witnessed a Westside demonstration flight of an experimental aircraft, the aluminum-framed “Meteor” bat-wing. He hired Berkeley student inventor Nicholas Carter as the nation’s first circus aviator for the 1909 season. To everyone’s shock, the circus ended its most successful season in 1908 when it was sued by creditors for bankruptcy. The circus had been a success as a small dog and pony show, but as it grew its profit margin dwindled. For 1909 they prepared a show with 44 boxcars with 600 people and one airplane. The circus was publicly auctioned off in hopes of salvaging its next season while the original Dog & Pony show regained its independence.
Leading Santa Cruzans tried to help them by appearing in a benefit circus show sponsored by the Elks and showcasing local talent. The grand finale of every Norris & Rowe show was Roman chariot races, elephant races and camel races.
Cost-cutting eliminated a number of acts, no plane, and the hiring of cheap lowlifes hurt the circus’ well-kept family reputation. They moved their winter quarters to Evansville, Indiana. But with money tight and creditors following, they toured Kentucky for only a few months in 1910 before finally closing down. Meanwhile, the original Westside winter quarters and zoo have been vacated and converted into the Seacroft subdivision, forgetting the brief year that Santa Cruz was home to a Top 3 America’s circus.