"The Bearded Lady" in front of a circus trailer
Everyone has a story. Many are sad, others inspiring, or tragic, or hilarious. But what everyone’s story is—or should be—is remembered. Dan Carrell, language arts teacher and assistant Kennedy wrestling coach, remembers by telling not his own story, but his father’s, Jack Carrell’s, whose story is quite literally, full of monkey business. ”My father, Jack Carrell,” Carrell began, “his uncle, Leo, owned a circus.”
In 1941, Jack’s mother passed away, leaving him and his brother, Ron, in the care of his father. During the summer there were three months when Carrell’s grandfather had a limited amount of things he could do with the boys besides running around and being alone in the house. ”So, they thought it best to send both boys away during the summers to family,” Carrell said.
And at the height of circus season, ten year old Jack was sent to his Uncle Leo’s, who ran his own circus called Leo Carrell’s Monkey Circus, an act that was part of a bigger circus.
“Leo had started as animal trainer for the movies and after some time wanted to start having his own animal circus with all the animals he trained,” Carrell said. Leo had horses, different types of orangutans and monkeys—and as Carrell joked—monkeys that would ride would on horses.
One of these monkeys was a chimpanzee named Cheetah, who starred in the Johnny Weismuller “Tarzan” series of the thirties. When Cheetah died later in 1957, age 26, her death made national news.
And then there was another chimp. Suzie. Carrel’s father’s main job was to feed Suzie, walk Suzie and basically just be her companion because that’s what she was used to. He also had to clean out her cage and all the other monkey cages. During this time he soon came to know the other workers at the circus, which are nicknamed “carnies”.
“My dad got to be friends with the carnies. They used to tell stories about the Bearded Lady and the Crocodile Man—they were married— and all the different people my dad got to know through the circus,” Carrell said.
Carrell recalled one of his father’s most familiar stories. “I guess one of the episodes that was most traumatic for him was that he reached in the cage one morning to feed Suzie and she grabbed his hand and bit down on his right hand. And he always had a scar across his knuckles where she bit down and wouldn’t let go. That was Suzie’s way of saying that she was the one in charge. So Leo had to come over and make sure that Suzie was good to my dad for the rest of the time and she was,” Carrel said.
Still, the bite left a scar that ran across Jack’s hand and stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was thirteen. Jack Carrell worked in the circus every summer from the time he was ten until he was 16, when he then got a construction job.
Because of his dad’s experience with the circus, Carrell grew up disillusioned about the circus when his father took him to it. “The only thing that was funny about my dad was that the stretches that you wanted to spend the most time with where all the carnies were, my dad would stand right by our side and would not allow us to talk to the carnies regularly because my dad knew all the scams the carnies pulled. So he would teach us when we were really young about shortchanging,” Carrell explained. Shortchanging is a trick where a person counts money faster than they’re giving it back to the loaner, usually tricking the other person by distracting them by talking and maintaining eye contact.
The targets of shortchanging were generally guys on dates, and little kids with their parents’ money.
Jack Carrell knew all the games were rigged. He was responsible every once in a while for helping run game booths so he knew how to help rig the game. ”He was an insider of that part of what the carnies were doing and he and his uncle Leo was an animal trainer, and even though that sounds carnie-ish, he was very professional about it, he had really strict standards about people that were going to work with the monkeys and animals because they couldn’t be abused or anything like that. So they were very distrustful of carnies as well,” he laughed. “They were just people who came in and out of town to make money.”
Later in life, the Crocodile Man, the Bearded Lady, and Carrell’s Aunt Dot, Leo’s wife, settled down on Leo’s farm in something of a makeshift trailer park. There, Suzie and several other chimps, also retired.
Carrell’s lifestyle differs greatly from those of his other family members. “I never really related my teaching, my coaching to the fact that the three of the main Carrell males got into show business, but Uncle Leo ran a circus…my Uncle Ron became the voice of Indianapolis radio, before the Indianapolis 500 was on TV, and then my dad became a musician and traveled with Turk Murphy’s jazz band as well as his own band called The Salty Dogs and they toured and put out several albums. [He was] the lead trumpet in the Dixieland Jazz Band,” he said.
Carrell says he realizes now that he does a lot of talking in his class, and that coaching wrestling, “that aggressive talk really comes from that carnie-circus background.”
“That idea that you got to be selling something genuine, that you got to believe in what you’re doing and I think that’s just my Uncle Leo’s passion about animals, my dad was passionate about jazz music, and my uncle became passionate about radio, and I’m passionate about education and everything in English and my passion for wrestling so when we get talking about it we get really intense and really energetic,” Carrell said. “I think that’s what really fed it.”
Carrell's family's 1954 Christmas card
The back of the Carrell family Christmas card. Carrell's father used to work at a Circus.
Carrell's family's circus
- “The Bearded Lady” in Carrell’s family’s circus