The circus bug bit Dexter Fellows early in life. As a boy growing up in Massachusetts he attended the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. A rider in the show let him hold the reins of the horse that starred in the show. He was hooked.
Fellows was born in 1871. As a young man he tried out other careers as a clerk or handyman. But his way with words and magnetic personality made him a natural fit for just one job: Ballyhoo man for the circus.
He started with the Pawnee Bill show at the age of 23. He jumped ship to join the Buffalo Bill Wild West show, which took him to Europe. Then he moved on to the Ringling Brothers Circus for one year. After that he made the jump to P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. When Ringling and Barnum merged, they kept Fellows on.
Greatest Ballyhoo Man Ever
For more than 40 years, Fellows was a fixture in the circus world and watched as the industry evolved. When he started shows were small affairs that competed fiercely for slots in the biggest cities. Fourth of July week was highly coveted and circuses would hustle to elbow their way into the best venues.
The role of the Ballyhoo man was relatively straight forward. He was the press agent. He would travel ahead of the circus and visit the newspapers along the way, announcing that the circus was coming and planting some stories about the amazing acts that were about to hit town.
Consider one of his descriptions for the trapeze act from 1910 that invited the audience to witness “Desperately dangerous displays of unrivaled aerialism. Eleven of the greatest high-air gymnasts in the world in single, double and triple flying somersaults passing each other in mid-air, catching one another by the hands or feet, playfully tossing one performer to the waiting hands of another across a yawning chasm, and numberless other astonishing and audacious feats of finished flight and reckless rarity.”
In reality, the high wire acts and stunts made Fellows queasy. He preferred the animals. But as Fellows told it, the jugglers were always faster, the lions always fiercer and the bearded ladies hairier than the year before. And if his descriptions didn’t match reality? Well, by the time the circus closed in a town, Fellows would have already moved on, priming the next city or town with his ballyhoo act.
Showmanship Out of the Ring
And a big part of Fellows’ job was an act. He played it to the hilt. He always dressed fashionably. One reporter described his attire: Dapper hat, cigar, colorful plaid vest under a suit jacket and trench coat, feet encased in spats. He toyed with a gold watch and chain, from which dangled tiger teeth. He carried a gold-headed cane.
Some recall he had a likeness of Jumbo, Barnum’s star elephant, etched on a tooth. For a time he traveled with a circus marvel – he called him his magnetic dog. The dog could invariable point to the north pole, which Fellows joked, was immensely helpful navigating to his hotel after a long night.
Fellows would walk into a newsroom, rap on the editor’s desk with the cane and the room would snap to attention. His annual visit charmed the press. He paid for drinks and entertained with his stories from the circus.
He spun yarns for the newspaper editors and reporters that kept them laughing well into the night. One favorite involved the night when a lion escaped and a group of men were assembling to round him up. The men stopped at a bar for a drink to stiffen their nerve. But not Fellows. As he told it, he stopped the bartender from pouring him a drink: “Not for me, boys, hard liquor makes me too damn courageous.”
Behind the Jokes
But Fellows was also deadly serious about his craft. He knew the names of everyone in the newsrooms all across the county, from the copy boy to the publisher. And he would ask after them and their families as if he were a long lost friend. In return, the reporters and editors would hand over valuable inches of space in their papers for him to promoted the circus.
In some towns he would deftly craft a controversy only to shoot it down. He waltzed into one town with the claim that Jack Earle, who had joined the circus, was the tallest man on Earth, standing 8-feet, six-and-a-half inches tall. When challenged, he noted that height of tall men in the circus varied. Over the long season it was possible that Jack had shrunk a bit, begun to sag. But after a rest, he would be back to his peak. And, of course, the only way to really know was to visit the circus and see for yourself.
Another year he might deploy an old favorite of the photographers – stage a wedding of a clown in the center ring of the circus. The next he’d spin yarns about romance among the circus performers: the dog face boy was courting the bearded lady and the rubber man was jealous.
Dexter Fellows Charms the Press
Weddings, feuds, romances and break-ups among performers made great copy for newspaper reporters looking to fill space. And Fellows never grumbled. Any publicity was good publicity. Of course part of his job was getting the press to gloss over some of the more disturbing elements of the circus, such as the mistreatment of animals and performers.
For example, for several years he promoted the appearances of Iko and Eko, two albino African Americans that traveled with the circus performing as Martians or Africans with mystical powers, among other cover stories. One year, Fellows explained, the two left the show to work in another show. The two had suggested the circus start a dunk tank, he said, and other performers opposed it. So they moved on rather than incite an argument.
In truth Iko and Eko, who were actually Willie and George Muse, had reunited with their mother. She sued the circus and their manager for kidnapping the two performers as children and forcing them into circus work with little or no pay. That was a story Dexter Fellows didn’t promote.
Over the years, the circuses got bigger and the publicity grew more sophisticated. In the early days of Fellows’ career, the circus would arrive via train and form a loud, long parade through the town to the fairgrounds where it would set up. The ballyhoo man’s job was to make sure the town was primed for the parade. Then the band, jugglers and clowns would dazzle people all the while spreading word of when the show would open.
Bigger Circuses More Media
As roads got more crowded, the parades became a thing of the past. And the job of the press agent grew even more important.
When banker J.P. Morgan was in dire need of humanizing during one of his many run-ins with the law, Fellows cooked up an idea with Morgan’s bank press agents. He had one of the little people that performed in the circus photographed sitting on a smiling Morgan’s lap to try to humanize him – and spread the word that the circus was in town.
In 1936, Dexter Fellows did what others had urged him to, he wrote his life’s story. With the help of his wife and co-author Andrew Freeman he wrote his autobiography, This Way to the Big Show.
By that year he was slowing down and working less. He was such a legend that when he showed up in a town, he no longer had to visit the newspapers. The reporters would flock to him, ‘Mister Three Ring.’ He had begun assembling a collection of circus memorabilia in his home in New Britain, Conn. The collection is now at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library Henneke Archives of Performing Arts.
At the End
The next year, in fall of 1937, Fellows left Connecticut for Sarasota, winter home to the circus. He had caught typhoid fever earlier in the year, and in New Orleans he developed bronchial pneumonia. He traveled to Hattiesburg, Miss., and died in the hospital there.
Newspapers across the country ran Fellows’ obituary, many on the front page. And for decades afterwards, columnists rehashed old Dexter Fellows stories. During World War II he was even honored by having a Liberty Ship in the merchant marine named for him.
In the New Britain cemetery where he is buried, Fellows grave is marked by an enormous stone shaped like a circus big top tent and adorned with an elaborate elephant. It is so unusual it virtually beckons passersby, just like any good Ballyhoo man would, to come and see.
This story was updated in 2021.