Merle Evans and the Great Circus Disaster

Merle Evans and the Great Circus Disaster Disasters American History Biographies Famous Historical Events Tragedies and Triumphs

Merle Evans was leading the Ringling Bros. band during its July 6, 1944 performance in Hartford, Connecticut.  The Wallendas were performing on the high wire, with the band playing soft waltz music, when Evans first saw flames at the big top's sidewall:

Merle Evans...spotted the flames.  He stopped the waltz with a flick of one hand.

Some of the spectators thought the fire was a joke - or - part of the act.  Evans knew better:

At the far end of the tent, Merle Evans knew the fire wasn't a joke, and he could see Joseph Walsh still had cats in his cage.  Evans leaned over the bandstand and yelled to Fred Bradna, "Get those lions out - the tent's on fire."

Bradna saw the smoke by the front door and immediately whistled, calling the Wallendas down and alerting the others...

Merle Evans cued the band and they struck up the disaster march, Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever, a signal to show folks that something had gone seriously wrong.  Evans chose the tune because every musician knew it by heart.  The rest of the tent had no clue.  (Quoted passages from The Circus Fire:  A True Story of an American Tragedy, by Steward O'Nan, pages 69-70.)

Evans and his band played until it was no longer safe to do so.  All of them survived the disaster.

In fact, Merle lived a very long life.  The University of Maryland - where his papers are maintained - provides a short biography on him:

American circus bandmaster Merle Evans was born in Columbus, Kansas in 1894, and joined the S. W. Brundage Carnival Band at the age of fifteen as a cornetist.  For the next ten years, he traveled throughout the United States with theater and comedy shows, eventually becoming bandmaster of Jess Willard's Wild West Show.

In 1919, Evans became bandmaster for the newly-combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circuses.  From 1919 until his retirement in 1969, Evans played to an estimated 165,120,000 circus fans.  He remained active in circus music until his death at the age of 93.

Media Credits

Photo of Merle Evans online, courtesy University of Maryland.


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"Merle Evans and the Great Circus Disaster" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 28, 2020.
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