Billy Smart Junior

Elephant trainer and circus director
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The Independent Online

Stanley Smart (Billy Smart Junior), circus director and animal trainer: born 15 October 1934; married 1973 Hanna Magel (one son, one daughter); died London 23 May 2005.

When the actress Joan Crawford appeared as the guest ringmistress for a charity show at Billy Smart's Circus at Blackheath in London, Billy Smart Junior said to her, "If you don't lie under an elephant's foot during their act, I'll be terribly disappointed." In typical acidic tones, Crawford's reply was: "Then you'll be terribly disappointed." Billy's sister-in-law carried on in the role, their three-ton favourite elephant, Birma, placing her foot gently over the face of Kay Smart.

Jayne Mansfield was not so reluctant, however, and one year Smart even persuaded the holiday-camp millionaire Billy Butlin to let Birma walk over his body for a charitable good cause. Billy Butlin and Billy Smart Senior had been old friends from their fairground days before the Second World War.

Billy junior was born Stanley, in 1934, in a fairground trailer, the youngest of the four sons and six daughters of the great showman Billy Smart, who had first made his mark as a fairground magnate. In 1946, while out on a Sunday drive with his wife, Smart passed Harry Coady's Circus, stopped and bought the tent and equipment. Thus Billy Smart's Circus was born, and, in the 25 years it toured until 1971, it became the biggest and most splendid travelling show in the land, with the fairground rapidly becoming a thing of the family's past.

Billy senior was a showman of ample proportions, famous for his Stetson hat and fat cigar, and became a television personality from the family's frequent BBC programmes, one of which traditionally followed the Queen's speech on Christmas Day and racked up record audience figures. From a family of 23 children himself, he died in 1966 at the age of 73, and his sons Ronnie, David and Billy junior continued the show. When the circus closed due to rising overheads in 1971, the three continued their television show on ITV for some years, and subsequently developed the Royal Windsor Safari Park, from an estate formerly owned by the car magnate Horace Dodge.

From the advent of Billy Smart's Circus, Billy junior, then aged only 12, had been involved in the show's operation, acting as assistant Ringmaster. The following year he made his sawdust ring début as "Cowboy Billy and his Educated Pony, Rajah". By 1949, under the mentorship of the Czech trainers Jozi and Manja Smaha-Vinicki, he was presenting groups of Friesian liberty horses and Welsh ponies, and joined the Vinickis in a dressage riding quartet with his sister Rosie. By the early 1950s, he also took over the presentation of the elephants, which had formerly been the job of his brothers Ronald and David.

On one occasion, the show was playing in the Staffordshire area, situated over a coal-mine. The elephants, standing in their tent waiting their turn, suddenly ran amok. Perhaps they sensed an explosion miles beneath the ground or, with their sensitive feet, became aware that the place on which they stood was far from solid. They stampeded into the ring and towards a packed audience. David Smart rushed to head them off, spraining an ankle in the process. He managed to get in front of the charging elephants, but was helpless to stop the herd heading straight at him. However, the faithful lead elephant, Birma, saved the day, stopping in her tracks within a few feet of him, and turning herself broadside to the rest of the herd to halt their passage. Birma, bought from Wellingborough Zoo in 1949, remained with the family after all the other animals were sold off and the show closed.

In 1956, Billy senior, always a fan of the latest circus trends, brought to his programme the thrills and fun of a Wild West show, with Billy junior taking the star role of Davy Crockett. A few years later he featured as Wyatt Earp after the superannuated Davy Crockett was supplanted by the new cowboy hero from Gunfight at the OK Corral.

During the heyday of Billy Smart's Circus, the company added to its herd of elephants, with Billy junior frequently showing up to 15 fully grown animals, commanding them by his voice and a whip crack alone. Two of the younger elephants bore the names of his early girlfriends, Sabrina (the starlet) and Shirley (the singer Shirley Bassey).

Billy junior also appeared frequently in other shows, at Harringay Arena for Tom Arnold's Mammoth Christmas Circus, where he spray-painted five of his elephants white, yellow, blue, cream and pink; at Belle Vue Circus in Manchester; Kelvin Hall Circus in Glasgow; and in the Sports Palace in Paris where in the winter of 1956-57 he presented 10 elephants, and had to be flown home specially for his father's appearance on This is Your Life.

He was featured in two royal performances in London before Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, and at Windsor for the Royal Show before the Queen in 1977. Another memorable show was staged at the Royal Albert Hall in London in November 1967.

In 1979 David Smart parted from his brothers Billy and Ronald to start his own circus, but the latter pair continued to produce their television shows for ITV until 1986 when the circus company was wound up. On 22 February, Ronnie and Billy presided over the final auction of their circus equipment at the show's headquarters at Winkfield, Windsor. A Chaplinesque bowler hat, made for one of Billy's elephants, was among the items sole, and an elephantine-sized telephone - ideal for trunk calls, of course - sold for £600.

In his early days with the circus, Britain's most eligible circus bachelor had a reputation for fast living and night-clubbing, his drinking at one time earning him a disqualification. He was romantically linked with a number of stars of the time, including Sabrina, to whom he presented a beautiful leopard named Chico. But Billy Smart Junior turned from hell-raiser to serious husband in February 1973 when he married Hanna Magel, a 28-year-old airline stewardess whom he met at 35,000 feet en route for America.

The beautiful daughter of a rose grower from Hamburg, she married him at a beach ceremony in Acapulco, and they had two children, Billy-Jay, who made his circus début in a television show at Winkfield at the age of six, and Baccara. Billy-Jay has since gone on to become a property tycoon, following in his father's footsteps.

Billy Smart Junior had opulent homes in Britain, in Marbella (for sale in 1993 for a cool £1.7m), Aspen, Colorado, and latterly in Monte Carlo. The humble fairground and circus boy certainly made good following the glory days of Billy Smart's Circus.

D. Nevil

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