Unusual spring to 1937 show

By Roger Moroney


It was the year a brand new Morris Eight HP Saloon cost $470, four litres of Mission Wines' Invalid Port cost $2 and the State Theatre was showing Cafe Metropole starring Tyrone Power and Loretta Young.

It was also the year the HB Spring Show sprung something just a little out of the ordinary for showgoers to wonder at.

"That the annual Spring Show held in Hawke's Bay is of considerable value to the farming community as a whole is undoubted. Sufficient proof of this is found in the steady growth of the Hawke's Bay A and P Society and the manner in which the efforts of the society to improve its great spring festival each season have received the wholehearted support of those on the land."

So began an article titled "Show Provides Valuable Lessons for Both Youth and Experienced" in a spring edition of the Daily Telegraph on October 16, 1937.

The show of 75 years ago would indeed be a grand and memorable affair, as there were sights and sounds both colourful and entertaining for all ages.

Indeed, the annual show attracted much colour and much entertainment, although that year saw a sideshow gathering which would almost certainly never see light of day in this era. It would likely be stopped at the first permit application hurdle, and not just because it was steered by an Australian entrepreneur.

For it featured people as exhibits.

People who were "different."

With the hindsight of time, and changing times and attitudes, it all appears and reads as rather colourful. Like an old movie in the days before correctness was discovered and applied.

In the special publication the grand show, which encouraged the union of "town and country", was described equally grandly as a "Big Provincial Pageant - Diversion and Education for All."

And yes, there was indeed diversion.

In the form of highly venomous snakes, the world's tallest and heaviest woman, an African "pigmy (sic) man" who walked on broken glass and ate fire, a miniature Mae West, a giant Irish Guardsman and Ubangi, the world's smallest woman ... direct from the jungles of the Belgian Congo.

There was also a lass called Marjorie Van Camp who put on a show with trained piglets.

No ordinary little porkers these, though. They jumped over hurdles, rang bells, boxed in a small ring and shot off guns.

All under great marquees which arrived in the country, along with the unique individuals set to perform within them, aboard the SS Monterey.

Marquees which would bear the name of Greenhalgh & Jackson's Famous International Shows.

Arthur Greenhalgh was the main driver of what the newspapers of the day called "world wonders".

He was an Australian gentleman who travelled the world "in quest of wonders for show purposes".

He had toured the country before, but this was his and his human menagerie's first appearance at the Spring Show.

"Special arrangements had to be made with the Hawke's Bay A and P Society to cope with the enormous amount of space necessary for the erection of the huge marquees - and they give promise of being the highlights of this year's show."

Although members of the farming community may not have been so comfortable with that opinion.

Special arrangements also had to be made to get another sideshow attraction into the country and the Spring Show.

Pambo the Snake Man.

"Much trouble and expense were necessary before Pambo was able to obtain the necessary permission to bring his collection to New Zealand. This, however, was eventually obtained for a very limited period," the article of the day noted.

Pambo would crouch in a specially created pit which was surrounded by tiered seating for the audience.

His collection of snakes included the highly venomous brown snake, black snake and copperheads.

And yes ... he brought his own antidotes with him, which was not surprising given he said he had been bitten about 500 times.

He would have dragged them in, as did the little and large wonders Mr Greenhalgh unveiled to the curious crowds of locals.

Princess Pontus would have had them staring in wonder - given they had plenty to stare at. She was described as an "Amazon Giantess direct from America - The last of the Amazon head hunters."

But judging by her picture she probably emerged from somewhere in Iowa or Indiana ... she did not resemble a woman from Brazil, nor did her coy smile resemble that of a head hunter.

At 3.1m tall, and (allegedly) weighing 304kg, she was quite a gal.

She would appear with "Isom the African Pigmy Man" who stood just a metre high and was (again allegedly) from the "jungles of Africa". He looked, however, more like an African-American who was born with a growth hormone deficiency.

His act was an eyecatching one, a reporter noted.

"He takes a steel butcher's hook and places it through his tongue and lifts a 28lb (12.7kg) weight. He eats fire, and gives a very interesting performance."

In the marquee next door there were two little ladies who made Isom look like a giant.

Ubangi from the Belgian Congo, the "smallest woman alive" - the 32-year-old stood 63cm tall and weighed just 17.6kg.

And Dollita, "the miniature Mae West" - the 20-year-old sang and danced "just like a little doll".

She was 66cm tall and weighed 18kg.

The showgoers of 1937 were in luck when it came to seeing Marjorie Van Camp and her trained piglets, in a show called Pig-A-Dilly Circus.

She had been to the Bay nine years earlier with a similar act, although as the newspaper of the day reported "owing to the fact that her pigs were not trained in time for the show she did not appear."

Then there was Dennis O'Duffy, the "Giant Irish Guardsman" from County Cork who, at 28, measured up at 3.2m tall ... although his photo showed him wearing fine big boots and a towering Busby hat.

He would have been just the chap for an emergency, had the snakes escaped and attacked the piglets.

Ah yes, the great Hawke's Bay Show of 1937 certainly had an unusual spring to it.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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