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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company provides global satellite communi...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen