'LADEEZ aaand gentlemen, pree-senting the world's smallest strongman . . .' was the introduction for one of the most memorable of contemporary circus perfomers, Ivan Karl. Fellow artistes at Gerry Cottle's Circus, on tour at Lancing, Sussex, found his body in his caravan when he did not appear backstage under the big top for the five o'clock matinee.
In 1946, Anthony Carrol, a Northampton teenager, began weightlifting, becoming England's amateur chammpion in 1957. Ambitious to carve a career which used his considerable strength and ability, he looked forward to show business, but he found it difficult to get started. Perhaps there was a prejudice against his lack of stature from impresarios convinced that strongmen had to be tall as well as impressively strong. It was Joe Gandey, proprietor of a small but highly repected travelling circus, who in 1961 gave Carrol two happy years appearing as the Mighty Atom.
Joining Sir Robert Fossett's Circus in 1963, Carrol began working in Russian style. It was the only aspect of this popular artiste's act that was not 100 per cent genuine. Whether picking up the heaviest gentleman from the audience with a harness held in his teeth, or bending a metal rod held against his bare throat, Carrol, aka Ivan Karl, was clearly not faking.
Helped by stirring Russian music and a warm personality, 'Ivan Karl, the world's smallest strongman' developed into a top quality act and a very unusual talking point for the public. A television appearance for Billy Smart's Circus led to a season with the gigantic Smart touring show in 1966, then four years with Robert Brothers' Circus, before becoming an international attraction with top circuses in South Africa, Italy, Yugoslavia, Finland and in Germany with Circus Willy Hagenbeck and in Hong Kong with Gerry Cottle.
In the 1980s Karl also appeared in cabaret in London, at the Beefeater and for medieval banquets, and he was the human inside the jaunty streetwise bear for the 'Follow the bear' television commercial for Hofmeister lager. For the past few years he had been a regular member of Gerry Cottle's Circus and had enjoyed the support and companionship of a regular company.
A shy, good-humoured man, his terrific strength could still be awesomely impressive as he banged a nail into a block of wood with his hand or received sledge-hammer blows to an anvil resting on his chest - even in his sixties.