Obituary: Adolf Althoff

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ADOLF ALTHOFF was regarded as the elder statesman of circus life in Germany. He ran what was considered to be one of the most technically perfect circuses in the world and what was one of Germany's most popular shows.

The Althoff circus dynasty traced its heritage back to the mid-1700s, and like the Fossett family in Britain, was the most prolific and talented of all circus families in their own country. Adolf's father, Dominik, married the haute ecole rider Adele Mark, and they had eight talented children, Carola, Sabine, Helene, Franz, Henriette, Minna, Jeannette and Adolf. Carola, Franz and Adolf were to become Germany's leading circus directors of the early post-war years.

Born in a living wagon in 1913 as the music played at his parents' circus, Adolf was destined for a life in the circus. He became a talented horse trainer, and on his 26th birthday married Maria von der Gathen, from another well-known circus family that specialised in horse training.

In 1936 Althoff and his sister Helene formed their own tenting circus, Circus Geschwister Althoff. Their father gave them not only his blessing but also the elephant "Dicki", four horses and eight ponies, some vehicles and uniforms. Although Dominik was somewhat pessimistic about their chances of success, the show was a hit with the German public. In 1937, their top of the bill attraction was a tiger riding on the back of a horse, an act which, years later, Adolf's son Franz was to reproduce and take to America.

When Helene parted company to start her own show, Circus Helene Althoff, Adolf continued as Circus Adolf Althoff from 1939. During the Second World War, Adolf and Maria adopted the Enders Brothers, sons of Maria's late sister, who were later to become famous as a bareback riding team.

The Althoff circus somehow survived the bombings during the war, and during the Nazi era, Althoff bravely concealed the Jewish identities of two of his favourite performers, Irene Renter, a bareback rider, and her husband, Peter Bento, one of Germany's leading clowns. For saving the couple's lives, Adolf and Maria were honoured, in 1995, by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel.

In 1946, the Circus Adolf Althoff made a new start after the war years, opening in Stuttgart and then playing in Pforzheim, Mannheim and Karlsruhe. Meanwhile, Adolf's sister Carola and brother Franz were also carving out remarkable careers for themselves as circus directors. Carola, with her British-born second husband Harry Williams, created the Circus Williams, a huge success in Germany, which eventually went to America to form the basis of a new second unit for the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth". Franz Althoff formed a huge three- ring circus that travelled in Germany until the late 1960s and was featured in the 1964 John Wayne film The Magnificent Showman.

After the tragic death of Harry Williams in 1950 while performing a chariot racing sequence at Harringay Arena, in London, Adolf joined his sister Carola for a while, taking charge of the technical running of her show before resuming the running of his own establishment. For a while he changed the title to that of Circus Friederike Hagenbeck, since he judged there to be too many circuses with the Althoff title, and the name of Hagenbeck was one of the most respected in Germany. But he reverted to the Circus Adolf Althoff title and finally closed his show in 1965 when it was at its best. By this time, it featured Gord Siemoneit and his wonderful group of wild animals and the astonishing Mexican flying trapeze artistes the Gaonas. Althoff had also revived the tiger on horseback sensation he had first featured back in 1937.

In 1966, Althoff's son Franz and his wife Evy worked in Blackpool at the famous Tower Circus with liberty and haute ecole horses but in 1967 the family went to America, where Adolf's tiger on horseback was a featured attraction of "The Greatest Show on Earth" for three years.

On their return from America, the Althoff family formed a completely new circus undertaking, Circus Althoff Williams, buying the Williams title from Carola, who had remained in America. Having seen how the major ice spectaculars like Holiday on Ice had travelled by container throughout America, Franz was keen to establish a circus along similar lines. His show become the first and only "containerised" European circus, which Franz ran for a number of years under his father's guidance.

Later they toured the Moscow State Circus throughout Germany and regularly took their show to Sweden in partnership with Cirkus Scott. In 1996 the big tenting circus was relaunched very successfully as a "Horse Palace", a travelling musical fantasy featuring horses in a big top.

Although Adolf Althoff and his wife had retired to their winter quarters at Stolberg-Breinig, they remained involved with their son's enterprise, periodically travelling with the show until earlier this year.

D. Nevill

Adolf Althoff, circus performer: born 25 June 1913; married 1939 Maria von der Gathen (one son, one daughter); died Stolberg, Germany 14 October 1998.

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