|Birth: ||Aug. 31, 1910|
|Death: ||Jun. 20, 2001|
COUNT NICHOLAS, who has died aged 90, was one of America's most prominent ringmasters; he was also present when the worst disaster in circus history struck the canvas big top at Hartford, Connecticut.
On July 6 1944, a blisteringly hot day, more than 8,000 Hartford residents, mostly women and children, came to see The Greatest Show on Earth. Shortly after the matinee began, a ball of flame broke out high on the sidewall canvas.
The square mile of canvas had been waterproofed with 1,800 lb of paraffin wax and 6,000 gallons of petrol. Thousands of panic-stricken people stampeded to the exits, but for many the path to safety was blocked by the iron cage chutes that housed the lions and panthers. Engulfed in flames, the big top collapsed.
The blaze killed 169 people and injured more than 550. Nicholas had been outside the tent when the fire began but he joined others dragging people from the inferno. The then-ringmaster Fred Bradna claimed he had never seen a worse circus catastrophe. "My hair aflame, smelling my eyebrows and moustache burn, I pulled 11 children from the madhouse and carried them out," he recalled.
Charges of involuntary manslaughter were brought against the circus management, nearly bankrupting the circus. But in 1950 a 21-year-old drifter confessed to starting the fire. Recent evidence, however, has suggested that the man's claim was largely imagined and that the fault lay in the waterproofing methods.
Angelo Nicholas was born at Varos, Greece, on August 31 1910. After emigrating to America he joined the Ringling Brothers' Circus when he was 16 years old.
He started out as an usher, but soon the ringmaster Fred Bradna took an interest in him, and under Bradna's direction Nicholas learned the skills needed to become a ringmaster and equestrian director. The ringmaster's role was a crucial one. He was expected to know about the rigging for the aerial acts, and to be able to dovetail acts to ensure that there were no gaps in the program. He also had to prepare for accident or mishap by always having two acts waiting in the wings.
Nicholas became adept at cueing the band and the acts, creating such a professional and smooth-running performance that he was chosen as Bradna's assistant. It was Bradna who nicknamed him "Count" because he thought Nicholas looked aristocratic. He later changed his name legally to Count Nicholas.
The circus eventually recovered from the disaster at Hartford, and Count Nicholas took over as ringmaster in 1951, donning the black top hat and red tails that Bradna had once worn.
During his time as ringmaster, Cecil B DeMille made the award-winning film The Greatest Show on Earth. An actor played Count Nicholas's part, but it was still Nicholas who cued each act with a blast of his whistle. At the film's premiere DeMille presented Count Nicholas with a specially designed gold ringmaster's whistle inscribed to "The Greatest Ringmaster".
Nicholas went on to work for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers' Circus, the largest tented circus in America, and for other shows, including the Emmett Kelly Jnr All-Star Circus, but returned to the Ringling management briefly in 1964 to direct the Continental one-ring circus at the New York World Fair.
He also worked in nightclubs and made guest appearances on television with stars such as Johnny Carson.
When Count Nicholas married a polar bear trainer the ceremony was held in the center ring. They brought up their children traveling with the circus.
He is survived by his two daughters and a son.
Sarasota Memorial Park
Plot: Count Nicholas
Created by: Michael Float
Record added: Jan 04, 2012
Find A Grave Memorial# 82975083