Retro Review: Super Circus – Unidentified Episode

Retro Review is a monthly column that examines episodes of short-lived or obscure television shows. Each column includes both a summary and a review. Retro Review is published on the fourth Thursday of every month.

Super Circus – Unidentified Episode
Aired on ABC
Directed by Ed Skotch
Technical Direction by Russ Hunt

NOTE: This episode aired between January 1949 and December 1955.

Black and white still from an episode of Super Circus showing the show's title card.

Super Circus title card.
Copyright Unknown

Background

Super Circus debuted on January 16th, 1949. It aired live every Sunday on ABC. Claude Kirchner served as ringmaster. Mary Hartline, clad in a majorette uniform, acted as bandleader. There were also three clowns: Cliffy, Scampy, and Nicky. The series originated in Chicago until December 1955, when production shifted to New York City. Kirchner, Hartline, and the clowns were all dropped.

The first New York City episode aired on December 25th, 1955. Jerry Colonna took over as ringmaster, Sandy Wirth replaced Hartline, and comedian Jerry Bergen became the new head clown. The shift to the East Coast was short-lived: Super Circus aired for the final time on May 27th, 1956.

The Cast

Main Cast
Claude Kirchner
Mary Hartline
Cliff Soubrier as Cliffy
Nick Francis as Nicky
Bardy Patton OR Sandy Dobritsch as Scampy

NOTE: Bardy Patton, son of Super Circus producer Phil Patton, was the first Scampy. He was replaced by Sandy Dobritsch at some point in 1953 or 1954. I honestly don’t know which of them appears as Scampy in this episode.

Summary

The episode opens with Cliffy the Clown busting through a big drum to welcome viewers to another fun-filled episode. He then makes a pitch for Snickers and 3 Musketeers candy bars, both from Mars. Ringmaster Claude Kirchner also welcomes viewers before introducing the first act: a chimpanzee named Tony the Bonzo Kid.

Tony is dressed like a cowboy. He does some rollerskating, smokes a cigarette, runs in a circle while performing somersaults, rides a tricycle, dances with his trainer, rides a rocking horse, walks across a pole, eats a meal, and plays a toy fiddle.

Black and white still from an episode of Super Circus showing Mary Hartline conducting the Super Circus orchestra.

Mary Hartline leads the Super Circus orchestra.
Copyright Unknown

Claude returns to introduce a skit that doubles as a Snickers commercial. It features Mary Hartline, Cliffy, and two other clowns: Scampy and Nicky. Mary then leads the Super Circus orchestra in a performance, furiously waving her conductor’s baton.

Next, poor Nicky climbs into a box and is run through with swords during the Super Circus Side Show segment. One of the swords is gigantic, prompting a bit of physical humor as Mary, Cliffy, and Scampy stick it through the box. Once the swords are removed, Nicky seems disoriented but otherwise unharmed.

After another pause for Claude to talk about 3 Musketeers, it’s time for a lengthy acrobat act with the Noble Trio. The two men and a woman spin, tumble, and flip around and atop a set of parallel bars. The act ends with the woman hanging by her neck from a strap.

Black and white still from an episode of Super Circus showing ringmaster Claude Kirchner.

Super Circus ringmaster Claude Kirchner.
Copyright Unknown

Black and white still from an episode of Super Circus showing Nicky, Cliffy, and Scampy.

The Super Circus clowns: Nicky, Cliffy, and Scampy.
Copyright Unknown

Claude, Mary, and the clowns gather to say goodbye to the audience and viewers–and hawk Snickers and 3 Musketeers one final time. Nicky, still recovering from his ordeal with swords earlier in the episode, needs another drink. The water spews out of multiple holes in his jacket and the audience goes wild.

Review

I’ve wanted to write about Super Circus for quite a few years. Even though it ran for many years, it’s relatively forgotten today. That’s partly because it aired outside of prime time, partly because it aired on ABC, and partly because it never aired in syndication after its network run ended. There’s not a lot of information readily available about the show, either in print or online.

There’s not much I can review, to be honest. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this episode is how often Snickers and 3 Musketeers are mentioned. It’s basically one long commercial for Mars Bars. At one point, the young studio audience is shown devouring candy bars, big smiles on their faces.

Black and white still from an episode of Super Circus showing chimpanzee Tony the Bonzo Kid.

Chimpanzee Tony the Bonzo Kid smoking a cigarette.
Copyright Unknown

If I were a youngster in the mid-1950s watching Super Circus on TV, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about a chimpanzee smoking a cigarette. There’s no denying that Tony the Bonzo Kid knows a lot of tricks. But in 2017, and as an adult, it’s a little unsettling to see his trainer offering him the cigarette time and time again.

Mary Hartline has been called one of television’s first sex symbols. That seems quint, almost unbelievable. There’s nothing sexy about watching her enthusiastically conduct the orchestra. To be fair, as is the case with Tony the Bonzo Kid, it’s impossible for me to view Mary Hartline from the perspective of a 1950s television viewer.

The fact that Super Circus ran for so long–and ABC considered it important enough to transplant to New York City–means it drew an audience week after week. The show, and Mary Hartline, had fans. While it may be difficult for me to understand its popularity, based on this episode and one other that I’ve watched, that’s no reason to dismiss or mock it.

Odds ‘n’ Ends

Super Circus aired live from 5-6PM ET (4-5PM Chicago time) on Sundays. Some stations only aired half of the show each week. Also, half-hour filmed versions were created for use by stations that didn’t carry any portion of the show. This is one of those 30-minute filmed episodes. The duration of this episode is 29:28 without any external commercials. All of the commercials are integrated into the show.

The ABC eagle logo is seen after the closing credits.

Where to Watch

Alpha Video release this episode, and five other episodes of Super Circus, on DVD back in 2008. It may also be available on YouTube and/or the Internet Archive.


Were you a fan of Super Circus when you were a kid? If so, did your father watch with you so he, too, could enjoy seeing Mary Hartline? Hit the comments with your thoughts.


8 Comments

  • David says:

    This show was before my time, but I did read a comment years ago in a book about TV that stated many fathers would watch with their children to see Mary Hartline.

  • James Shell says:

    The Wikipedia entry on Mary Hartline is interesting reading. She’s still alive, by the way.

  • Jon says:

    Mary Hartline & Claude Kirchner shared one of the earliest national TV Guide covers, dated Aug. 21, 1953:

    http://www.tvguidemagazine.com/archive/suboffer/1950s/1953/19530821_c1.jpg.html

  • Patrick McNamara says:

    I’m not surprised that there’s a lot of ads for Mars and Snickers considering this was a time when a single sponsor would sponsor a whole show.

  • paul kollmar says:

    ,,, i’m not sure which version of syndication you were offered;;IN 1960 TERRYTOON CIRCUS was claude kirschner’s sole tv roll=====do NOT CONFUSE DON AMECHE’S INTERNATIONAL SHOWTIME in 1961…. fridays prime time//// it was never allowed kinescopes nor reruns/ or vhs or anything====it lead into RAWHIDE scheduled later….in the evening

  • Mike Doran says:

    I was born in Chicago in 1950.
    Super Circus was always there.
    – Claude Kirchner was a major figure in early Chicago TV; his daily show was very much like Art Linkletter’s.
    Super Circus was a side job; Kirchner took it when another local announcer – Mike Wallace – turned it down.

    – Mary Hartline also had a daily show on WENR-TV, channel 7 (Chicago’s ABC-owned station). This was a kid show, which paired Mary with Chet Roble (moonlighting, so to speak, from Studs’ Place), and a studio full of kiddies.

    – Cliff Soubier was a stage actor with many theatrical credits in Chicago and elsewhere; he’d spent some time in Hollywood years before (you can see him in Black Legion, an early Bogart movie), but had settled in Chicago when TV came along.

    – Nicky Francis was the one real clown in the group; he’d been doing his tramp character all around Chicago for years, including a brief solo daily kid show on ch7 for a while.

    – Bardy Patton was the son of Phil Patton, Super Circus‘s original producer; when he aged out of the part, Sandy Dobritch, who was the kid in a family of acrobats, was drafted to take the part of Scampy.

    – Over the years, Super Circus had more than a few sponsors, who were pitched relentlessly during the show. If memory serves, Mars Bars were one of the later ones. I can recall Kellogg’s cereals as an early sponsor, with Cliffy enthusing about the many breakfast treats available therefrom.

    Somewhere in my pile of videos, I’ve got some Super Circus shows from various years, someday, I may even find them …

    Oh, by the way:
    International Showtime did not lead into Rawhide.
    For much of its run, it competed with it – Rawhide on CBS, Showtime on NBC.

  • Joseph says:

    Had videotape and color television existed back then, and had “Super Circus” been taped (or filmed) in color, it’s reruns might have ended-up being widely syndicated for many years afterwards.

    Even if on black-and-white film, it’s reruns might have been widely seen well into the 1960’s.

  • George Everson says:

    Does anyone know if an act known as The Amazing Mazurs – a double trapeze/cradle act appeared on Super Circus? And is the film of that performance still in existance

    A while back while doing research on something else I discovered a piece of old film showing the Amazing Mazurs performing and then learned that the son of one of the performers was trying to find films of his dad in the act. I was able to forward the small piece of film which only showed about 2 minutes of the whole act to the young man, and he and his family were thrilled to see “dad” in action. But the gentleman told me that the Amazing Mazurs also appeared on ABCs Super Circus.

    Is there any way to find out if they did appear on the show and when and if the film for said show still exists.

    George Everson

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