Before multi-platinum recording artists and Oscar-winning films celebrated Bloomington, Indiana, the city already occupied an important position in entertainment history. Although these days the term “dog-and-pony show” is usually used ironically, in the late 1800s the Gentry brothers of Bloomington brought glory to their hometown with just such an act.
Having trained a few animals and corralled his three brothers, 17-year-old Henry B. Gentry bought a train car and got a show on the road in 1885. “Gentry’s Equine and Canine Paradox” soon came to feature 40 ponies and 80 dogs in each of two traveling units. Having bought out several of its competitors by 1900, the outfit that was then known as Gentry Brothers Famous Shows lived up to its name with four separate units boasting camels, sacred cows, monkeys, and elephants that entertained crowds as far away as Mexico City.
Another outstanding aspect of the Gentry Brothers Circus was its music. Two steam calliopes traveled with the show, and several important American bandleaders got their start with the Gentry band. Worthington, Indiana native Fred Jewell ran away from home to play euphonium for the Gentry show, going on to publish over a hundred marches and lead the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey band, among others.
While various units of the Gentry Brothers Circus would winter in Houston, Texas or Macon, Georgia, the primary winter quarters remained in Bloomington on the family farm. H. B.Gentry sold his rights to the show in 1916 for 100,000 dollars. In 1923 the family platted the farm west of Rogers Street into 150 house lots, extending the McDoel Gardens Neighborhood. Though Gentry bought back the circus in 1931, even a troupe of trained pigs and a high-diving monkey were unable to keep it afloat past 1934. These days, one of Gentry’s prized steam calliopes resides in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. A limestone horse head hitching rack outside the Monroe County Historical Society Museum—an artifact from the Gentry farmstead—harks back to Bloomington’s dog-and-pony days.
This Moment of Indiana History is a production of the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations in association with the Indiana Historical Society. More information is available on-line at “moment of Indiana history.org.”
Writer: Yaël Ksander
Sources for this program include:
http://www.monroehistory.org/february_2006.pdf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Jewell http://www.childrensmuseum.org/special_exhibits/circus/circusindiana_winter.htm