Christmas Circus a spectacle in West Baden history

Photos provided by French Lick Resort
This is the French Lick Resort's only known photo from the Christmas Circus that was held in the atrium of the West Baden Springs Hotel a century ago.

By French Lick Resort
Special to The Herald

All day long the celebrated atrium, one of the largest rooms in the world, rang and sang with laughter and greeting, from early in the morning when we were romantically awakened by the sound of the reveille until we closed our eyes that evening.

The stories read like something from a Christmas fairytale. But they’re all true-life echoes from one of the most captivating days in West Baden Springs Hotel’s rich history.

We’re nearing the 100th anniversary of the day the hotel’s atrium staged a spectacle beyond belief — a circus performance on Christmas Day of 1918, put on for the soldiers who were staying there. At the time, West Baden Springs Hotel closed to guests for a seven-month span between 1917 and 1918 when it briefly assumed a new name and a new identity: U.S. General Hospital Number 35. An Army hospital where wounded soldiers from World War I were sent.

French Lick Resort was fortunate to receive a treasure trove of information about the 1918 Christmas Circus, thanks to a librarian from the area who has a passion for West Baden’s history and an even greater nose for research. She preferred not to be mentioned by name: “this story belongs to West Baden’s history,” she says. “West Baden is so unique and beautiful—and the Christmas Circus of 1918 reflects this.”

A huge tip of the cap to her, though, since her research poring through old newspapers, journals and other publications has shed more light on the circus courtesy of the people who were there to see it. The italicized sections of this story are accounts from some of the soldiers, performers and guests who were there that day to witness all the pageantry of Dec. 25, 1918.

It is safe to say that no performance was ever given before a more appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

About 2,250 soldiers in total were treated during West Baden’s Army hospital stint, as a sense of patriotism prompted several similar resort properties in the U.S. to offer their facilities as hospitals during the World War I era. The hotel retained some of its posh comforts and services, such as the baths and massages that the spa staff administered to weary soldiers.

Nothing, though, compared to what they were treated to on Christmas Day.

With the first faint rays of the early dawn, the chimes peeled out the Nativity. Carolers strolled through the great building, first in the lobby then in the great court, out upon the balconies, through the long corridors, telling in echoing cadence the joyous story of Christmas morn. After breakfast, gifts were distributed and friends were allowed a real visit.

The scene wouldn’t be complete without a Christmas tree, right?

The tree had gone up two days earlier in the atrium. And it was a production in itself. “The largest that could be found in Orange County, so tall that its top-most branch reached the fourth floor,” it was touted. It towered 45 feet high — a couple feet taller than the modern-day tree you see in the center of the atrium at Christmastime.

Long streamers from the balconies on the top floor artfully curved to a meeting point 50 feet above the floor, with a large five-pointed star just above. The star and tree were illuminated by electric bulbs after nightfall, with festoons, stockings, balls and bells also accenting the tree.

A circus procession formed down the drive at the West Baden Springs Hotel.

It was decorated, with great enthusiasm, by sweaty solders who lugged hundreds upon hundreds of gift boxes to be distributed later.

Music from three pianos filled the atrium with graceful notes, before the circus got rollicking in the afternoon. Why a circus?

It was thanks to the connection with Ed Ballard, an influential man from the community who also would eventually assume ownership of West Baden Springs Hotel a few years down the road. Ballard owned six circus companies, including the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus that was nationally renowned at the time. The circus toured April through October, and during winter, and the troupe was quartered in West Baden Springs. Those were exciting times during the winter, when the town’s population increased by 1,000 with the circus influx, and it took 60 train cars to carry the performers, animals, props and tents to West Baden.

This Christmas Day circus was more of a beast for everyone to pull off.

To accommodate the jumping, running, leaping and romping of the animal performers — five lions, four elephants, a large white horse just to name a few — a ring of sawdust and wood chips was placed on the floor so the marble tiles wouldn’t be damaged. And not all the animals fit through the atrium entranceway with ease. It’s believed the elephants may have had to walk on their knees to gain enough clearance to squeeze through the doors.

But at 2:30 sharp in the afternoon, the big-top show under the West Baden dome commenced in grand fashion.

As if by magic there sprang up in the east end of the (atrium) a large platform and a circus ring with real tan bark. Here, four huge elephants performed their tricks and five snarling, fang-dripping lions. ... A beauteous dame did lightsome and frilly equestrian business on a big white horse, with a cute little black horse for comedy.

Concluding the circus performance was a clown and his two boxing dogs, all of which furnished an exciting time for the audience.

Stand in the hotel’s atrium today, and it’s incredible to think about the spectacle those people witnessed there 100 years ago.

One of the lions jumped over a 3-foot fence that was ablaze with fire. A small monkey named Eddie Pluto hopped around the atrium doing tricks and entertaining the soldiers. Tom Sanger, a famous circus clown from the era, boxed with his kangaroo and brought down the house.

These crippled American boys were grinning to forget their pain, cheering the clown, and giving the kangaroo an ovation.

And everyone had a seat for the show — even the more seriously injured soldiers who were placed in rooms with a balcony view to overlook the circus below.

Every boy who could be brought down to the main floor was allowed the privilege of joining the jolly groups there, but not even the ones who could not leave their beds were transferred into the rooms that looked out upon the court, with their beds placed so that they could see and hear everything that was going on without lifting their heads from the pillows.

The Christmas Day cheer didn’t end there.

Marguerite Cottrell, who has her husband on her shoulders, was one of the circus stars.

At 5 o’clock, the soldiers sat down to a special dinner, followed by the evening performance at 7:15 — the hospital orchestra as well as professional talent brought down from Indianapolis. With one thing after the next in a spectacle that lasted all day, “the spectators, especially the patients, were becoming fatigued from the constant excitement,” according to one account.

There’s nothing better than a surprise on Christmas. And this holiday 100 years may have been the ultimate surprise when the Army hospital soldiers unwrapped one of the most unusual, fascinating days in West Baden Springs Hotel history.

Tom Sanger (the kangaroo-boxing clown) may have said it best from one of the accounts from the day:

I’ve played many a date, but this takes the cake.

See this story and others on the French Lick Resort's blog.

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