Friday, May 08, 2009

Edwin "Poodles" Hanneford

(June 14, 1891 - December 9, 1967)

With a name like "Poodles," you might expect him to have become famous with a dog act. Although he did work with dogs during his career, that was not the source of his nickname. According to the story, Edwin Hanneford Jr. was born in Barnsley, England, while his parents, Ned and Elizabeth, were working for the Lord John Sanger Circus. His aunt Kate visited when young Edwin was only three days old, stating that "He looks more to me like a big happy poodle. That's what I'll call him, Poodles." And that nickname stuck throughout the rest of his life.

Growing up in a circus family, Poodles came to join the act at a young age. He gained many experiences during these years, becoming one of the greatest trick horse riders of all time, adding more to the art of trick riding than anyone since Philip Astley first created the art form. He was the first to do a back somersault from one running horse to another following behind. He created the "step off" -- where the rider steps off the horse straight legged as it gallops, then calmly strolls off. Poodles stepped off the side, not the back of the horse, as most do; Poodles' method of stepping off has never yet been duplicated. He learned other skills as well, including using an Australian whip with extreme precision. Although a natural comedian, he worked as a serious performer, until he was 19 years old. After doing a difficult technical performance to tepid audience response, he lampooned the act, having the horses going at top speed as he twirled about on their backs, leaving the audience screaming when they thought he was about to fall, only to turn to laughter at his antics. With the infusion of comedy, not unlike the original Billy Buttons routine of Philip Astley, Poodles the clown was born.

In 1915, John Ringling North brought the Hanneford family to the United States of America, to join the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus. They soon became headliners. Poodles found another type of success as well, falling in love with Grace Norma White, a fellow performer. However, their marriage was delayed until after the end of World War I, when Grace would no longer have to fear the loss of her husband in wartime.

In 1922, Poodles made his first motion picture -- he would have more than forty short films to his credit before he was done, although he never achieved stardom on the silver screen. Even so, he had many memorable roles, including The Circus Kid, The Circus Clown, Our Little Girl (with Shirley Temple -- who hasn't wanted to run away and join the circus?), The Red Pony (with Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum), The Bells of Rosarita (with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans), and Springfield Rifle (with Gary Cooper) -- and one appearance on television, with the Cisco Kid.

During these years, he continued performing with different circuses, as well as making his entry into the record books. Poodles Hanneford is in the Guinness Book of World Records for performing a running leap onto a horse at full gallop then stepping off again and running and leaping back up again - 26 times in succession. However, time takes its' toll on even the most gifted of performers.

In 1954, at the age of 63, Poodles Hanneford retired from performing his trick riding at the circus. He continued with his whip routine for a while, but eventually came to work at an amusement park in New York, called Frontier Town. Poodles played the part of the Old Prospector as well as clowning, his wife Grace run the frontier store, and their daughter Gracie performed there as well with a trained dog act.

Poodles Hanneford worked there until his death in 1967. He is buried in Glens Falls, New York, beneath a memorial that includes his famous step off. Grace, his wife of 48 years, died in 1984 and was buried next to Poodles.