Gainesville Community Circus

By: Libby Barker Willis

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: January 1, 1995

The Gainesville Community Circus began as a project of the Gainesville Little Theatre in May 1930. Faced with a $300 deficit and the growing popularity of talking motion pictures, officers and directors of the theater decided to organize a burlesque circus as a fund-raiser. A. Morton Smith, editor of the Gainesville Register and an authority on circuses, organized the first two performances, which were so popular with townspeople that the performers gave a third. Earnings of the three shows totaled $420. By the spring of 1931 the circus was performing in the main exhibit building at the Cooke County fairgrounds. At one of those performances, citizens from Denton asked that the circus travel to Denton the next year for the Denton County Fair. From that first traveling engagement grew a tradition of Gainesville Community Circus road shows.

Several characteristics distinguished the Gainesville Community Circus from other circuses. Although professional circus entertainers who passed through or wintered in Gainesville occasionally joined local citizens with circus experience in training performers, the circus was presented entirely by amateurs who had full-time jobs and were residents of Gainesville. Performers had no professional circus experience, received no remuneration, and provided their own costumes and most of the rigging.

The circus had three rings with bareback riders, trapeze artists, acrobats, tightwire performers, jugglers, and clowns. Trained animals included lions, chimpanzees, an elephant, and Shetland ponies. Through the years, the circus's equipment, which began with trapeze riggings, clown props, and wardrobe trunks, grew to include seven tents, a big top that covered 22,000 square feet and seats for an audience of 2,500, six ornamental tableau wagons, hundreds of costumes, a calliope, and hundreds of other pieces of paraphernalia.

Statistics compiled for the 1953 official program showed that from 1930 to 1952 the circus troupe gave 359 performances in fifty-seven different cities and canceled only one performance, after a tornado destroyed the big top in 1939 in Ardmore, Oklahoma. In the twenty-five years of the circus at least 1,500 Gainesville citizens took part in performances before 500,000 spectators. In 1954, shortly after its twenty-fifth anniversary performance, the circus's tent and equipment were destroyed by fire. Gainesville citizens gradually rebuilt, occasionally presenting isolated acts until the entire show made a formal comeback in Odessa in 1958. That year, however, saw the organization's demise. According to former circus president and chief clown Frank E. Schmitz, "Television and air conditioning killed" the circus, which had "just got too big."

Dallas Morning News, March 15, 1976. Gainesville Community Circus Magazine and Daily Review, 1936. A. Morton Smith, Twelve Years of Trouping (Gainesville, Texas, 1944).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Libby Barker Willis, “Gainesville Community Circus,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995