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.