Obituary: Hal Denver

Ralf Norman (Hal Denver), entertainer: born 22 August 1909; three times married (two sons); died Leeds 24 July 1994.

HAL DENVER once held the world record for spinning the largest lariat. He also claimed the unusual distinction of having thrown knives at Gwen Major, the Prime Minister's mother.

From cowboy rope-spinner and circus proprietor to extra on television soap-operas, Denver spent his entire life in show business. He died on the eve of filming a new television programme.

He was born Ralf Norman, in 1909, one of the nine children of the Victorian fairground showman Tom Norman. Tom himself came from a family of 14, and left home at an early age to travel the length and breadth of England, to almost every fair in the country. Nicknamed 'The Silver King' by the American showman Phineas T. Barnum, on account of the huge silver watch always to be seen on his waistcoat, Tom became a leading figure on the fairgrounds with his sideshows and freakshows, displaying many of nature's oddities, including John Chambers the Armless Carpenter, the Ugliest Woman on Earth, the Lion-Faced Lady and the most celebrated of all British freaks, John Merrick, 'The Elephant Man', on whose life-story the 1979 play and the 1980 film were based.

Two of Ralf's five brothers, George and Arthur Van Norman, left the fairgrounds to find fame as clowns in many of the world's great circuses, and Ralf too became a star of the sawdust ring, as a Wild West performer. He appeared in many films and rodeos in America and Europe and with western stars like Tex Ritter and 'Hopalong Cassidy' (William Boyd), two of the biggest cowboy actors in America. He was a guest on The Johnny Carson Show and, with Elvis Presley and Gene Autry, on The Ed Sullivan Show. He also appeared with Presley in Las Vegas.

Under the name of Hal Denver, he toured in variety with Dick Henderson, the comedian, and 'Hutch' the singer, worked with Morecambe and Wise in a long- running touring stage variety show, Front Page Personalities, in the Forties, when both comics were completely unknown, and once claimed to have got himself arrested in Dallas. In Lefty Clark's Sans Souci night-club in Havana, Cuba, he worked with big stars like Edith Piaf, Tony Martin, Dorothy Dandridge and Denise Darcel.

After working with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States, the world's largest circuses, he worked in England with shows like Blackpool Tower and Billy Smart's. Between stage tours in variety, Denver also formed his own travelling circus, calling it first 'The Silver King Circus', later using titles like 'The South African', 'The Royal South African Circus', 'The New Era Circus' and 'The Great American Circus'.

Denver used to tell the story of John Major's parents, Tom and Gwen Major, working with his circus in a trapeze act, 'The Sensational Majors'. One night, when Denver's regular lady assistant had walked out of the act, having fallen in love with a man and out of love with the 18-inch knives Denver would hurl around her body from a distance of 24 feet, the show was saved when Mrs Major replaced the human target. In later days, Denver declared: 'The woman was a real professional, and, although I've had three wives, there are only two ladies in my life that I can think of with fond affection, my mother and a dear lady named Major.'

Denver's first wife was Ella, a sharpshooter, whose brother is well known in British variety as the cowboy star Rex Roper. All three marriages ended in divorce, but he leaves two sons, Monty Norman, a builder and decorator, and Michael Van Norman, who as Micky Van is well known as a top boxing referee; both at one time appeared in the circus with their father.

In their heyday, the Denvers' act was featured in leading theatres like the Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas, and appeared for five shows a day, seven days a week, at the Palace Theatre on Broadway; it was paid dollars 1,800 a week, big money for the Forties.

After his third wife, Olga Frei, left the circus, Hal Denver returned to cabaret and theatre work, and later concentrated on film and television work, appearing in such soap operas as Emmerdale Farm and Coronation Street.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor