Obituary: Bobby Roberts
Monday 19 April 1999
For almost four decades, Bobby Roberts and his brother Tommy ran one of the most popular family travelling circuses in the British Isles, and his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are continuing family traditions with their own shows. In their early days, the Roberts brothers were as well known "on the halls" throughout the circuit of British variety theatres as they were in circuses.
Their father Paul Otto, a continental tumbler, came to Britain early in the 20th century, and married Mary Fossett, one of the sisters of a famous circus proprietor, "Sir" Robert Fossett, with whose show he appeared. Bobby was born in 1912 at Kingsthorpe, near Northampton, where the Fossett show had its winter home, his brother arriving two years later. Called Robert Otto Fossett, Bobby later changed his surname to Roberts, as did Tommy, and it was with Robert Brothers Circus that they later gained fame.
Bobby's first apprenticeship in the circus was as a juvenile clown, and by the time he was 11 he had a solo bareback riding act at Sir Robert Fossett's Circus. The brothers were both versatile, and appeared in riding acts, aerial numbers and in an acrobatic horizontal bar act with which they later toured "the halls".
At the beginning of the 1930s, they worked in their parents' own small tenting circus, known as Otto's Victory Circus, then with Rosaire's Circus, and eventually joined Chapman's Circus, one of the leading shows of the era. With Chapman they tented, and appeared on the stage in Chapman's extensive winter tours in the many variety theatres Britain then possessed. Chapman adopted the title "Hip-Hip-Zoo-Ray" for his stage ventures, and, when they launched their own stage show later on, the Roberts brothers took the same title, and the same colour scheme, red and yellow, for their tenting circus.
As speciality work had taken them much into the theatre, it seemed natural that both brothers should marry music-hall artistes, Bobby in 1941 taking as his bride Kitty Mednick, a member of a family musical act, the Norman Sisters and Michael. Their first son, Bobby junior, was born the following year.
With their wives, Bobby and Tommy worked at the Blackpool Tower Circus and the Blackpool Palace Theatre in 1942 before the brothers went into the National Fire Service, being stationed in Edinburgh. After being discharged 18 months later, Bobby ended up with Harry Coady's Circus before joining the stage tour of Don Ross's Colossal Combined Circuses, Ross being the husband and agent of the music-hall star Gertie Gitana.
Early in 1944, with a partner, Billy Mack, Bobby and Tommy decided to form their own travelling circus to take entertainment to wartime entertainment-starved audiences. It opened under the improbable title of Otto Brothers Madras Express and Tropical Circus, and one of their biggest problems proved to get enough petrol coupons to move the show during wartime rationing.
By this time the brothers had branched out into animal training and the title was changed to Robert Brothers' Mammoth Zoo-Circus; the arrival of their first elephant, from Dudley Zoo in 1946, was a turning-point. Their show fared particularly well in Scotland, and soon they were producing animal acts for other shows, for Don Ross, Captain Prince-Coxe, Billy Smart and Sanger.
Later they would send their animals to prestigious engagements at Blackpool Tower, Belle Vue Manchester, and the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow and to many of Europe's leading tenting circuses. Bobby Roberts specialised in training horses, ponies, elephants, dogs and llamas, while Tommy also became known for wild animals. In the summer they travelled under canvas and in winter the Robert Brothers' Hip-Hip-Zoo-Ray Circus was featured in all the leading variety theatre circuits, and they were soon employing a large number of animal trainers, clowns and speciality acts, many of whom remained in their service for many years.
1n 1950, Bobby Roberts saved the life of one of his trainers, Carl Fischer, when a lion jumped on his back, but unfortunately neither brother was on hand to save the life of another lion trainer, the Frenchman Rene Ruellot, who had rashly gone into the cage with his animals before becoming fully conversant with them. Such incidents are, happily, rare in the circus world and the Roberts Brothers enjoyed decades of success and few mishaps. One strange thing happened to them on the Continent when visiting a circus. They were arrested by police who believed them to be the Russian spies Burgess and Maclean.
Bobby and Kitty's daughter Maureen was born in 1951 and by the early 1950s they were not only producing a tenting circus and a stage show that played the Moss Empires' circuit, but also had a summer circus at the Festival Gardens in Battersea Park and another at Douglas, Isle of Man. In the 1950s, Bobby's first son was making his debut in the ring. In 1961, Bobby handed over to his elder son the presentation of the elephants, and Bobby junior was later to appear with them several times before the Queen and the Royal Family.
In 1966 the Roberts' show was engaged for the Twentieth Century-Fox film Dr Dolittle at Castle Combe, but the filming of the circus scenes was finally cancelled and the show was not to appear in it. In addition to their circus activities, the Roberts operated a wildlife park at Thorney Abbey at the end of the 1960s. Their circus was the first to appear at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, London, but the season there was marred by a female high-wire artiste's falling some 30 feet to the ring, sustaining a broken arm and leg.
By the early 1970s, they had a dozen or more elephants and a string of horses, ponies and exotic animals, more than enough for the show's own needs, its engagements at prestigious circuses in England and on the Continent. Bobby Roberts junior and his younger brother Tommy had taken over the showing of elephants, horses and ponies, and their father was taking a back seat. By the 1970s, with the big circuses of Billy Smart and Bertram Mills no longer on the road, Roberts' was becoming not just one of the biggest family outfits, but one of the bigger shows touring in England, and even featured the great clown Coco, who had been a draw for Bertram Mills' Circus since the 1930s.
Bobby and Tommy pulled off a significant coup in 1978, while their animal acts were appearing at the Brighton Centre Circus in Sussex. Billy Smart's Circus, after a quarter-century of television shows for the BBC, had defected to ITV, and the brothers were able to obtain the lucrative contract for themselves. Christmas and Easter television recordings made theirs a household name; soon they were also providing the facilities for the annual Circus World Championships held in London, and televised around the world.
As the families of both Bobby and Tommy Roberts grew, it was decided that the brothers should divide their assets and create two tenting circuses. Bobby, in 1982, formed the Roberts Brothers Super Circus with his sons, while Tommy and his family traded as Robert Brothers Famous Circus, although they continued to share winter quarters at Oundle. In semi-retirement, Bobby and Kitty were able to oversee their sons' achievements. In the winter of 1992-93, the partnership of Bobby junior and Tommy junior was ended, and today Bobby travels his own traditional circus, Bobby Roberts' Super Circus, around the country, while Tommy presents his horses and ponies at Zippo's, London's Favourite Circus.
Bobby Roberts's death marks the end of another era of the history of circus, created in Britain in 1768. The rise of his travelling empire came at the time when entertainment was most needed, in those dark, final days of war, and he was able to enjoy the initial boom years after it. The show weathered a general decline in show business as television took its hold of the public's interest, and Roberts used the new medium to popularise his show nationwide. His circus was also one of the last great tenting outfits promoting performing animals on a grand scale in Britain.
Robert Otto Fossett (Bobby Roberts), circus performer and circus proprietor: born Kingsthorpe, Northamptonshire 5 July 1912; married 1941 Kitty Mednick (two sons, one daughter); died Oundle, Northamptonshire 5 April 1999.
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