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Finding aid of the Ralph Rodgers and Percy Turner Circus collection 0388
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Biographical Note: Percy Turner
  • Scope and Content
  • Biographical Note: Ralph Rodgers
  • Acquisition
  • Conditions Governing Use
  • Preferred Citation
  • Conditions Governing Access
  • Separated Materials
  • Processing Note

  • Title: Ralph Rodgers and Percy Turner Circus collection
    Collection number: 0388
    Contributing Institution: USC Libraries Special Collections
    Language of Material: English
    Physical Description: 76.0 Linear feet 71 boxes, 2 metal trunks
    Date: 1930s-1980s
    Abstract: The Ralph Rodgers and Percy Turner Circus Collection documents the collective interests of a circus model builder/ miniature circus owner and a real circus owner who became friends and whose circus memorabilia ended up with a mutual friend who donated them to USC. The collection contains ephemera, correspondence, photographs, books, records, costumes, and a large amount of circus model plans and drawings kept by Ralph Rodgers. A portion of the collection represents the history of the Percy Turner Circus, one of the first circuses owned by an African-American based in the southern California area.
    creator: Rodgers, Ralph
    creator: Turner, Percy, 1907-1984

    Biographical Note: Percy Turner

    The Turner Brothers Circus (aka Turner Brothers Dog and Pony show) was created by Percy Turner in 1958. (There are Articles of Incorporation for the Turner Bros. Dog and Pony Show showing a date of June 5, 1959.)
    Percy Turner was, by trade, a sign painter in the area of San Diego, California. He and his family had always wanted to have their own circus, so in 1959 they formed their own. They found a local "angel" who was willing to bankroll them. They leased the animals through some contact Turner had in the Paul Eagles Circus Luncheon Club up in Los Angeles. They had a lion, a tiger, two ocelots, an elephant, and several camels. There were clowns, acrobats, a high-wire artist, a dog act and horses, but the Turner family were the only Black members of the troupe. Percy and his wife Joy said that they had never had any Black applicants for jobs in their circus.
    The Turners left their successful sign-painting business in Pacific Beach to tour the California coast and were widely successful with audiences. Unfortunately, they had no circus experience and the show was forced to close after they discovered their advance agent was skimming the profits. (Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 24 Feb 1998.) Percy Turner went back to sign painting and later lettered some trucks for Circus Vargas when they were in Southern California. Percy Turner kept hoping to find someone else who could provide the financial means to allow him to take out another circus, but his failing health and increased costs prevented him from ever touring again. And though the Turner Bros. Circus officially closed for good on July 4, 1959, Percy and Joy Turner continued to entertain their friends "circus-style"--erecting the cookhouse tent in the backyard for all their local fans, surrounded by the remnants of the dog and pony show that were in various states of repair around the sign shop. Percy Turner died in 1984.

    Scope and Content

    The collection is comprised chiefly of Ralph Rodgers' circus memorabilia and materials related to circus model building. In addition to articles, newsletters, instructions, and photos on model building, Rodgers' own drawings, notes, and photographs are included in the papers. His correspondence with well-known circus performers such as Diamond Jim Parker and John Strong document his close ties to the circus world where he formed many long-lasting friendships. A small portion of the collection relates to Percy Turner, a friend of Ralph Rodgers who had his own circus for a brief time in the 1950s. Rodgers and Turner presumably met through John Strong, a well-known circus performer who had his own circus and is well-represented in this collection's ephemera.
    As described in the biographical note on Ralph Rodgers, the large circus artifacts--the actual circuses-- were dismantled and divided up among Rodgers' sons and their families after his death. Fortunately, there are many photographs in this collection which document Rodgers' own miniature circuses as well as the circuses he worked with during the months that he "ran away to join the circus" in his fifties.

    Biographical Note: Ralph Rodgers

    Ralph Rodgers, whose "day job" was as a gas service man for San Diego Gas & Electric, was an avid circus model builder and lifelong circus devotee. He spent his lifetime learning about the circus, following all the circuses--figuratively and later literally-- and becoming friends with many of the well-known circus performers and clowns of the day, many of whom were also model-builders.
    Ralph Rodgers' wife, Mary Ann, was supportive of her husband's hobby and also worked with him and attended conventions with him. They had four sons: Patrick, Kevin, Michael, and John-- all of whom had model circuses named after them. The circuses were created in the Rodgers' backyard in El Cajon and reflected Ralph's desire to preserve the form and spirit of the circus during its heyday of the 1920s and 30s.
    When Ralph Rodgers passed on in 2006, his sons tried for about a year to place the main Rodgers Bros. circus in a museum. They contacted all of the circus museums in the United States in addition to a couple of circus model museums, but could not generate any interest in their father's circuses. They speculate that one of the reasons may be the sheer number of circus model builders that existed at one time, although the numbers have dwindled like most hobby crafts have.
    Michael Rodgers also mentioned that when he and his brothers were growing up, they visited many circus model builders conventions and saw many of the model circuses of their father's friends such as Jim Parker. Many of the models and circuses they saw were "picture perfect" and looked more factory manufactured than the circuses that Ralph Rodgers built out of chiefly "found" materials. Since he was a serviceman for the San Diego Gas and Electric Company, his job afforded him many opportunities to enter vacated homes to check the gas lines and also salvage materials that could be used to build his circuses. For example, the majority of the older circus wagons were constructed from wooden Venetian blinds. Rodgers built all his wagons and train cars from found wood; he also carved all his own circus people and most of the animals. He fashioned the wagon hardware and other parts from tin coffee cans. He would paint toothpaste tube caps, put wire handles on them, and--voila--water buckets. Every year for two weeks in the spring (rain or shine), Rodgers and his sons would set up the circus in the backyard for all the neighborhood kids, dogs, cats, etc. to enjoy and so, over time, the circus took on the look of a working circus. Though some model builders looked down on Rodgers' creations, the model builders who were also "real" circus people admired and appreciated how realistic the Rodgers circuses were.
    When the Rodgers sons failed to find an appropriate museum or host for their father's circus, they chose to honor their father's wish-- which was to take it to the desert and burn it if no one wanted it as one complete circus. The circus filled a 10' x 24' storage unit and, while the family did not actually take it out to the desert and burn it, they met at the home of Michael Rodgers along with their nieces and nephews and divided up what they wanted to keep. Then they burned the rest of the stuff while toasting their father through the night, thus folding up the Big Top for the last time.
    Images of Rodgers' circus can be viewed online at: http://dreamingincircus.com/media/rr-circus/rr-circus.htm


    Donated to USC by Duncan Smith in 2010. Duncan Smith was a friend of both Ralph Rodgers and Percy Turner.

    Conditions Governing Use

    All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Manuscripts Librarian. Permission for publication is given on behalf of Special Collections as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained.

    Preferred Citation

    [Box/folder# or item name], Ralph Rodgers and Percy Turner Circus collection, Collection no. 0388, Regional History Collection, Special Collections, USC Libraries, University of Southern California

    Conditions Governing Access

    COLLECTION STORED OFF-SITE. Advance notice required for access.

    Separated Materials

    Six boxes of books were included in the donation of this collection. They have been separated from the archival materials to be catalogued individually, but kept together as a donor-based collection. They include both adult and children's books on circuses and circus-related topics.

    Processing Note

    This collection was processed with the assistance of Tiffany Chu.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Big Apple Circus. -- Archives
    Circus Model Builders International. -- Archives
    Circus World Museum (Baraboo, Wis.). -- Archives
    Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. -- Archives
    Cole Bros. Circus. -- Archives
    Evans, Merle -- Correspondence
    Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. -- Archives
    Hayden, Robert, Dr. -- Archives
    Jacobs , Lou, 1903-1992 -- Correspondence
    Kreischer, Lou -- Correspondence
    MacDougall, Robert -- Correspondence
    Parker, Jim, 1938-2003 -- Archives
    Posey, Jake, b. 1863 -- Correspondence
    Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows. -- Archives
    Rodgers, Ralph -- Archives
    Sells-Floto Circus. -- Archives
    Strong, John, d. 1992 -- Correspondence
    Turner, Percy, 1907-1984 -- Archives
    Wallenda, Karl -- Archives
    Wenatchee Youth Circus. -- Archives
    African American business enterprises--California--San Diego--Archival resources
    Amusements--California--History--Archival resources
    Circus wagons--Archival resources
    Circus--California--La Jolla--20th century--Archival resources
    Circus--California--Lakeside--20th century--Archival resources
    Circus--California--Los Angeles--20th century--Archival resources
    Circus--Florida--Sarasota--20th century--Archival resources
    Clowns--Archival resources
    Costumes (character dress)
    La Jolla (San Diego, Calif.)--History--Archival resources
    Magazines (periodicals)
    Phonograph records
    Popular culture--California, Southern--History--20th century--Archival resources
    Slides (photographs)