Send in the Clowns

Lions and Tigers Loose in the Streets of Blairsville!

That somewhat overstated headline ran atop a quarter-page ad for Colonel C.T. Ames’ New Orleans Circus in the 1869 Blairsville Press.  What it really announced was the end of a drought.  The fourth to visit Indiana County that year, Ames’ show was welcomed by an entertainment-starved community that had seen just one full-sized circus in seven years.  The Civil War had gobbled up men, horses and capital through 1865, and the re-formed troupes took a while to return to non-metropolitan venues.  Not that we were unknown territory, even then; shows as large as P.T. Barnum’s Colossal Menagerie and as small as Professor Hamilton’s Flea Circus had made regular stops here since 1847.


Why such commotion over a mere circus?  Well, imagine for a moment that computers, TV, movies and even the phonograph have yet to be invented.  Now add twenty hours to your work week, and top it off with a legal requirement not to entertain yourself on Sundays.  Suddenly, a caravan of exotic animals, acrobats, trick riders and clowns “nearly a mile in length” rolls into town; there’s a calliope up front, a brass band in the middle and a tethered hot-air balloon at the end.  Are you excited to see them?  You bet you are – to you, that’s Disney World rolling down Main Street!

Pennsylvania was intimately involved in circus history from the start.  America’s first circus opened in Philadelphia – our nation’s capital – in 1793, with President Washington attending.  In the 1800s, Pennsylvania native Adam Forepaugh almost single-handedly put the business and art of circuses on equal footing, allowing them to survive and thrive in the Industrial Age.  And Benjamin Wallace, whose show was second only to Ringling Brothers’ in its heyday, was born right here in East Wheatfield Township.

Indiana County native Benjamin Wallace was a major circus proprietor

The golden age of the American circus was 1870-1930.  Those sixty years between the opening of the West and the coming of “talkies” coincided with the greatest population growth in our history.  America’s rapidly-expanding transportation system and migrating populace made the traveling tent-circus the ideal entertainment of its day . . . and a perfect fit for still-rural Indiana County.

It wasn’t all hearts and flowers.  Like much of Pennsylvania, Indiana County had a love/hate relationship with the circus, and with good reason.  The smaller the show, the more victims of pickpockets, card sharps and con artists were left in its wake.  Brawls between “carnies” and “rubes” were common, and even some who weren’t circus people took advantage of our love of the Big Top.  A Mister Sharpe made the rounds of Indiana businesses in September 1877, putting up posters for an October visit by the Springer Circus; after having posters for the show’s next stop printed on credit, the bogus business agent vanished, having first enjoyed free lodging, meals, and “numerous potations of whiskey.”

Continuous evolution was at the heart of any circus’ success.  While there were constants like animals and acrobats, the big draws were changed often to exploit whatever novelty was then capturing public attention.  Balloon ascensions, roller-skaters and (gasp!) an electric light were featured in the 1880s, while automobiles circled the ring in the 1890s and cowboy film stars led circus parades of the 1930s.  Of course, some shows were not above manufacturing their own novelties.  A painted pachyderm was passed off as the world’s only white elephant, and one menagerie displayed its “rare Tartarian Cow-allapus” to credulous county residents.  Circuses and performers even stayed novel by re-naming themselves periodically.  A year after its 1869 visit, Bryan’s Grand Caravan and lion-tamer Herr Conklin returned here as the Campbell Zoological Institute and Monsieur Conqulin!

Yet most circus evolution was legitimate and even forward-thinking.  Starting in 1827, touring by rail allowed any circus to have the entire country as a potential audience, and by switching to performance in tents instead of existing structures, they were no longer limited to the big cities or bound by a host’s schedule.  Trucks began replacing trains in 1906 when, as the Gazette observed, railroad costs became “a source of growing alarm for circus proprietors.”  And when the postwar boom proved to be a suburban one, most circuses returned to performing in arenas (Ringling’s final tent-show was in Pittsburgh, 1956).

The number of circuses visiting our county varied widely from year to year, even during their heyday.    Economics was the biggest factor.  The Depression of 1877 and the Panic of 1896 each dropped the annual number to zero, while good times brought three or more per season.  Curiously, the second-greatest number of troupes in our history visited during the first full year of the Great Depression: 1930 saw six circuses pass this way, each augmented by performers thrown out of work when vaudeville died.  It was all downhill from 1931 to 1945, with a rebound nipped in the bud by WWII’s gas rationing and the draft.  Ah, but then came the Boom….

What’s the life-blood of a circus?  Children!  It was no coincidence that the highest (and final) peak for circuses in Indiana County and nationwide came in the year 1953.  GIs returning from WWII had married and started families in record numbers, and their first kids were turning six and seven that year.  The local economy was soaring, too.  Between April and October, SEVEN circuses (including two Shrines) visited our boroughs.  Circus toys were top sellers that Christmas; in theaters, films like Elephant Walk and Man on a Tightrope packed ‘em in, and three circus-themed shows ran on network television.  Anybody remember the Buick Circus Hour?

But as Baby Boomers passed into adulthood, good times for the circus seemed to pass with them.  Television and the advent of home computers increased the postwar trend away from public entertainment, while the Internet and mobile devices further encouraged our cocooning in recent years.  Animal rights activism has had a profound effect for better and for worse, even closing Ringling Brothers in 2017.  Just five circuses came to our county in this century’s first decade – fewer than in the single year of 1953, and the lowest ten-year total ever.

Will there be an end to this drought?  Could be.  The success of recent films like The Greatest Showman and Dumbo imply a renewed (albeit historical) interest.  And to our east and west, fundraising Shrine circuses (a Pennsylvania innovation) still draw crowds to their permanent Altoona and Pittsburgh venues.  But live or die, the Circus has left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness, even for those who have never heard the ringmaster’s shout of “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages…!”  See those ten notes below?  A 1993 Oberlin study says you’re more likely to recognize them than any opening riff but Beethoven’s Fifth when heard.  They’re from Entrance of the Gladiators, played as performers entered the ring in almost every American circus since 1901.  Hey Rube !!


Up In The Air

Reading the history of Indiana County, you might get the impression that we’re a down-to-earth people not much given to flights of fancy.  Truth is, we’ve had our head in the clouds for nearly 200 years . . . .

Pennsylvanians have been eager participants in “balloon mania” from the very start.  Ben Franklin was present when the Montgolfier brothers launched their Aerostat in 1783; America’s first balloon launch, manned ascent and parachute drop were all made by Pennsylvanians, and only New Yorkers have held more airship patents.

Campbell Airship  America  (1889)

Indiana County’s involvement probably began in 1837 when Richard Clayton’s Star of the West, on its 13th flight from Pittsburgh, was forced down on the bank of the Conemaugh River near Boltz.  Its sudden appearance from a storm cloud delighted passengers on a canal boat, while some on shore thought it was a demon and prayed for deliverance.  By mid-century we’d grown more accustomed to them.  At the Indiana County Fair of 1858, Luther Martin of Blairsville “sent off a balloon which ascended to a great height and sailed out of sight.”  Fifteen years later, the Fair began a tradition of manned ascensions that continued unbroken  into the 1920s.

With the transition from free balloons to powered and maneuverable “dirigibles” in the late 1800s, many ships of unique and innovative design passed this way . . . or tried to.  One that never made it was the state-of-the-art Campbell Airship America: football shaped, buoyed by coal gas and maneuvered by hand-cranked propellers, it was to have made five loops out from Punxsutawney in 1889 but was lost off Atlantic City earlier that year.  Fate was kinder to the famous Stroebel Airship.  The 54’ dirigible’s rudder broke during a test flight at the 1909 Indiana County Fair, but pilot Frank Goodale  cut the engine and brought his ship down safely.  It was repaired, and made daily figure-eights around the Fairgrounds and Courthouse as scheduled.

Balloon pilots were the celebrities of their day.  These “aeronauts” had to be a cross between scientist, stuntman and vaudevillian, and most were called Professor (remember Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz?).  Typical of those who performed here were John Wise and Joe Steiner, veterans of the Union Army Balloon Corps.  Thirteen year old John Wise Junior became the world’s youngest aeronaut when he ascended solo from Indiana in 1874.  And not all aeronauts were men!  Blairsville’s own Madame Zeno (Alice Huonker, 1869-1964) performed acrobatic stunts on a parachuting trapeze dropped from her balloon for audiences across America.

Even the balloons were stars.  Ads for McConn’s Restaurant on Philadelphia Street offered “Hoffman’s Ice Cream and a Candy Blimp for 5¢.”  A banner headline in the Indiana Democrat proclaimed, “The Airship Age Is Here!,” and a tongue-in-cheek blurb run by the Weekly Messenger in 1901 predicted, “The dirigible will not displace the trollycar for a year or two.”  Ironically, just five months separated Indiana County’s last trollycar run and its last dirigible visit.

Some of those visitors were quite famous.

The giant zeppelin ZR-1, soon to be renamed  USS Shenandoah  upon its delivery by the Imperial German Army, flew directly over Indiana on October 1, 1923.  Four year old Clarence Stephenson, future author of Indiana County 175th Anniversary History, witnessed its passage:

“The author…recalls vividly seeing the ZR-1 pass almost directly over his home.  While playing…he became aware of the noise of engines. (L)ooking up, he was astonished to see a big, cigar-shaped objectPoking above the hill.  Running as fast as his legs would carry him, he told his mother…to come see the monster passing over!”

Seven years later, a smaller craft made an even bigger impression on us.  The Goodyear blimp Vigilant visited Indiana in September of 1930 to promote Rising Brothers, its aptly-named local tire dealer.  Sixty-five citizens got to see Indiana County from 400 feet, four at a time, before the Vigilant left for Uniontown the next day.  Declared by the Gazette to be our county’s all-time greatest aeronautical event, it was eclipsed just five weeks later when none other than Charles Lindbergh landed here to wait out an ice storm.  And Vigilant’s sister ship Resolute passed over while searching for Thomas Settle and his missing stratosphere balloon Century of Progress in 1933.

Goodyear Blimp  Vigilant  (1930)

Yet for all the warmth of its citizens’ welcome, Indiana County’s  terrain  could be downright hostile to airships on occasion.  Winds that funnel through our valleys have contributed to at least six crashes.  In 1910, a racing balloon flying from Indianapolis was brought down by “eccentric air currents” onto the farm of Hugh Peddicord near Homer City, and  in 2015, IHGS’s own Chuck Spence extricated stranded balloonists from a tree near Plumville.  But the most celebrated crash happened in 1918 when a military observation balloon loaded with scientific equipment lost its pilot near Akron and drifted 150 miles, ending up in Blacklick Creek near Heshbon.  The balloon was deflated and brought to Indiana’s National Guard Armory (present site of the Historical Society!) to await transport home; meanwhile, an enterprising officer of the 110th Infantry stationed here mounted the gondola and used it as a “powerful boost for recruiting.”

By the 1920s, America’s aeronautic fascination was shifting to heavier-than-air craft and their pilots.  No longer the cutting-edge technology they’d been for 130 years, balloons now had to share the stage with barnstorming biplanes at public events.  Though surrounding counties’ Fairs continued to feature them through the mid-1930s, Indiana County’s continuous string of ascensions was broken in 1925.  The Airship Age had ended.  You can still catch the occasional hot air balloon floating over our county – there was one at this summer’s Airshow – but look no more for the likes of John Wise or the shadow of a zeppelin.

No Man Must Know

“To whom should this be?  M,O,A, Ilet me see, let me see.  And at the end – what should that alphabetical position portend?  ‘A’ should follow, but ‘O ‘ does….

That’s Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, trying to decipher a secret message he’s just picked up.  He’s being pranked, but your average codebreaker’s work is deadly serious . . . especially in wartime.

America hadn’t yet been drawn into the Second World War in 1940, but it was obvious to our intelligence services that it was just a matter of time.  We needed codebreakers – lots of them, and fast.  But where to find them?  The draft was already vacuuming up men of fighting age for combat duty, and the manpower shortage would only get worse.  Hmmm….  How about women?  Naval recruiters started canvassing elite women’s colleges in New England for exceptional math and language majors of solid character.  The Army followed suit, focusing on teachers colleges in the South and Midwest.

By late 1941, there were 181 women at Arlington Hall, the Army’s cryptographic facility outside Washington D.C.  After Pearl Harbor, that number exploded: 8,000 were at work decrypting Axis message traffic there by war’s end.  And in February 1943, a unit of just two souls was added to that mass.  The code they were working on was Russian.

Wait a minute.  Wasn’t the Soviet Union our ally in that war?  It was.  But it had been Germany’s ally before that country invaded them in 1941, and if the two decided to make a separate peace, the U.S. and Britain would be facing the Axis alone.  We needed to know, and to plan accordingly.  So two codebreakers became six became dozens; new recruits and old blades were funnelled in, and by 1945 the unit was processing 400 encrypted Russian messages per day.

Into that top-secret whirlwind stepped an Indiana County hairdresser….

Angeline Rose Nanni was born in 1918 to Biagio and Philomena Nanni of Creekside, the third of six children.  Angie’s knack for numbers was apparent almost from the start: she graduated early from eighth grade, but since she was too young to attend Indiana High School yet, she helped out with bookkeeping and delivery preparation at the family grocery on Arch Street while she waited.  That same talent got her an after-school job at G.C. Murphy’s in Indiana once she was allowed to enroll.  Half of her 1937 graduating class would be in uniform five years later, but Angie was destined for even greater contributions.

no man must know

After high school, Angie left Creekside to work in Harrisburg.  Returning a year later, she joined her sisters in beauty school and then in their Blairsville and Indiana salons, where she kept the books and left the styling to Virginia, Mary and Jennie.  The Nanni sisters closed shop “for the duration” in 1944 and headed to Washington to pick up war work; Virginia joined the Marines, then returned with her sisters to their salons after the war.  Only Angie stayed on in D.C.

In the autumn of 1945, Angie was invited to test for a job with SIGINT, the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service.  She assumed it would be to qualify for routine clerical work, but when she solved a cryptic math problem using only what is now called the cognitive unconscious, SIGINT knew they’d found their next Russian codebreaker.  The other test takers – all college graduates – were sent home.

The Russian unit, codenamed Jade at first but Venona in later years, was kept secret from other codebreakers at Arlington Hall.  They sat in a screened-off area where none but those in the unit were allowed, and each evening they locked anything with Cyrillic (Russian) characters on it away with their codework.  They were never to speak of their work to anyone, not even each other, once they crossed the threshold.  Family and friends assumed they were clerical drones, and the “Code Girls” let them think so.

Venona was divided into Traffic, Reading and Back Room sections.  Angie started in Traffic, sorting encrypted messages by source.  But project head Gene Grabeel, wanting to make best use of Angie’s gift for pattern analysis, soon moved her into Reading.  There she typed the most promising messages into an IBM keypunch machine and analyzed the resulting tables for character-sets that implied the sender’s use of a certain “duplicate pad” for encryption.  That pad was the entire reason for Venona’s success against an otherwise unbreakable Soviet code.

What was it, and how did we know about it?  The key to the code’s invulnerability was its use of an ever-changing set of character-substitution sheets in the coding process.  Compiled in pads, each was to be used just once, then destroyed.  But when Germany’s 1941 invasion threatened the plant where those pads were produced, its presses, paper and personnel were moved deep into the Russian interior.  Until new sheets could be configured, it was necessary to reprint existing ones.  These “duplicate pads” (a fraction of 1942’s total output) were dispersed to Soviet spy-centers around the world in an effort to avoid the very pattern-detection Venona would eventually accomplish.  Most were used up by 1945, but that was enough: the code was cracked in 1946.

It didn’t hurt that the Finns (intentionally) and Japanese (unintentionally) gave us a hand.  Finland had been invaded by the Soviets in 1939;  resistance fighters captured a partially-burned coding pad, which they sold us in 1944.  They’d also identified structural clues embedded in Soviet message traffic, and that knowledge was sold to Japan.  When it turned up at Arlington Hall in decoded Japanese transmissions, it was passed on to Venona.  There, geniuses like Meredith Gardner and Richard Hallock broke the duplicate-pad coding . . . yet without the intuitive scanning and labor-intensive matching done by the likes of Angeline Nanni, Venona could never have uncovered the astonishing revelations that followed.  Rosie the Riveter had nothing on Connie the Codebreaker!

Once the decrypted messages were read, it was plain we’d gotten more than we bargained for.  No news of Russian-German negotiations, but a stunning parade of code-named Soviet spies in the US, UK and Australia.  Hooking up with the FBI (and later CIA), Army SIGINT was able to match details of actual persons with those mentioned in Venona intercepts.  And what a list!  In the 3,000 duplicate-pad intercepts decoded by Venona, 349 spies were mentioned, half of which were ultimately identified.  To name just a few:

  •  Henry White, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury
  • Klaus Fuchs, Manhatten Project nuclear physicist
  • Lauchlin Currie, White House advisor
  • Kim Philby, British intelligence liaison
  • Alger Hiss, UN and State Department officer
  • Julius Rosenberg, Army Signal Corps engineer
  • Duncan Lee, OSS officer, one of 20 identified

Several were tried, some turned state’s evidence and a few escaped to Russia.  Ah, and then there was the one in Venona itself.  Codenamed “Link”, he’d even been mentioned once the intercepts but was not identified until 1950 as linguist William Weisband.

Though only a small percentage of the 194248 intercepts were deciphered, Venona’s impact on history was remarkable.  Angeline Nanni and two others stayed on to the end, packing away the material for storage in October 1980.  Until that material was declassified in 1995, the public remained ignorant of Venona and what it revealed about the extent of Soviet penetration into American government, military, academia and journalism.

Angeline Nanni is still with us, one hundred years young and living in Washington.  There are still Nannis in Creekside, too, as you’ll see if you visit the family restaurant there.  As for their Angie’s place in history, well, they could surely be forgiven for saying (with apologies to Malvolio):



(Can you crack this “simple substitution cipher”?  we’ll post the answer next month on Facebook)

Swing Time

Well alreet!  Are you hep to what was happening here in the Thirties and Forties?  Sunsets in the east and west, and clambakes where a gate could really swing.  No ducks?  No problem: slip a blip in the piccolo and jump-jump-jump!

No, we hadn’t gone mad – just mad for the music of the Big Bands.  Between the jazz age and the coming of rock-n-roll was the Swing Era, and no place outside of America’s big cities swung like our little corner of the world.  The Sunset Grove at NuMine and Sunset Ballroom in Carrolltown, just over the county lines to west and east, were Pennsylvania’s most popular Big Band venues.  “Clambakes” were concerts where swing fans (gates) danced.  If you couldn’t afford the tickets (ducks), you could still drop a nickel in the jukebox and dance, dance, dance….

Like radio and the movies, Big Bands were part of what got us through the Great Depression and the biggest war this world has ever seen.  Their heyday was from 1937 through 1946, but some were popular here well into the next decade.  The first few big-name bands to visit Indiana County came in 1938;  the high-water mark was in 1940-41, and by the end of the era more than fifty had performed hereabouts.  Why did so many famous bands come this far off the beaten track?  ‘Cause we were rabid fans perched between the state’s two best ballrooms, that’s why.  Since bandleaders knew that only so many of us could fit into the two Sunsets, they made sure to book into smaller but still “happening” venues throughout the county as well.

And there were plenty of those.  Indiana had the Rustic Lodge and Meadowland, while Blairsville had its Rainbow Villa.  There was Danceland at Clarksburg, New Deal Café in Homer City and the Rose Inn out by Ernest . . . more than a dozen in all.  Each catered to local tastes, booking famous “sweet” or “hot” bands between local talent when they could.  Fans joked that the sweet-to-hot spectrum ran “from SK to SK and from Sunset to Sunset” – that is, from Sammy Kaye at the Sunset Grove (where sweet held sway) to Stan Kenton at the Sunset Ballroom (where some liked it hot).

Imagine!  Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo . . . they all played here.  Some even called southwest PA home.  Baritone bandleader Vaughn Monroe (whose later hit “Ghost Riders in the Sky” some of you may remember) was from Jeanette and Ray Anthony was from Bentleyville.  Vocalists Maxine Sullivan and Perry Como were Homestead and Canonsburg natives, and Larry Clinton’s drummer was a fellow Indiana Countian!  Our own Norm Park and his Collegians played throughout the state, and local boy Angie Sgro (son of the Sunset Grove’s owners) even toured nationally.

 Glenn Miller played the Sunset Ballroom in 1942

Of course, not everyone was on the Big Band bandwagon.  Pittsburgh Symphony conductor Harvey Gaul pronounced swing “alleged music . . . just our current form of imbecility,” and many a Pennsylvania pulpit echoed that condemnation.  Indiana County’s strict Blue Law observance even meant there were no Sunday swing concerts here.  Sort of.  Most venues simply waited until one minute post-Sabbath to let ‘er rip.  In fact, the single most popular night of the year for dancing was “Easter Monday,” when owners booked the best bands available.  And in the county seat, where several thousand students pretty much guaranteed a vigorous night life, the State Teachers College sponsored “Swing Out” each May from 1938 to 1944.  Lindy Hop till you drop!

Admission to concerts varied widely in price, depending on who was playing.  Did you want to see local talent like the Commanders?  Thirty cents.  Dance to second-tier national bands like Jerry Gray’s?  Fifty-five.  And when the big boys came to town – you know, “Goodman and Kyser and Miller” – those ducks would run you a buck twenty-five if you could get ‘em.  Big money back then, but worth it.

Ballrooms weren’t the only place to get your swing, either.  Radio stations like WJAC and WCAE broadcast Big Band recordings and live remotes, including some from Indiana County venues.  We flocked to see any film starring name bands, and “soundies” – the ancestors of music videos – often played between newsreel and first feature.  And of course, there were the platters.  Indiana’s Blair F. Uber, “The Largest Radio Store in Pennsylvania,” had a permanent Gazette ad listing its current top-selling discs.

Then came World War II, and like so much else in our lives, the music scene was put on hold.  With fewer and fewer undrafted sidemen available, most bands disbanded for the duration.  Some went further than that: Major Glenn Miller and Chief Petty Officer Artie Shaw formed military Big Bands to sustain morale.  Back home, some bands composed entirely of women rose to fill the void, including Indiana County’s own Coquettes (whose cover of Martha Raye’s hit “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” underscored the man shortage here!).  Fewer couples meant smaller audiences, too, so the remaining bands concentrated on big cities.  Guess where that left us?  Even non-shellac records became scarce when vinyl was declared a strategic material.

Things started looking up when Japan surrendered in the summer of ’45.  Once bandleaders and sidemen were discharged, the old orchs re-formed and hit the road.  But wait . . .  something was different.  We weren’t the same country that had danced to “Jukebox Saturday Night” and had gone “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”  An entire generation of American men had seen death and destruction for four long years, and now what they craved above all else was NORMAL  LIFE  –  marriage and family and a day job, not night life and the Hit Parade.  By the end of 1946, most of the Big Bands had called it quits.  America was moving to the suburbs.

Hang on.  That wasn’t the end.  Bands at either extreme of the spectrum, the very ones mocked by prewar music critics, survived in greatest number after the era’s end.  The likes of Shep Fields (sweet) and Gene Krupa (hot) were still welcomed at Indiana County venues and across the country as they toured in the late Forties and early Fifties.  TV networks, recognizing the resonance sweet bands had with domestic America, gave several of them their own weekly shows.  What Baby Boomer doesn’t remember the Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk shows?  Even Ozzie and Harriet, that icon of American family life, starred former bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his singer/wife Harriet Hilliard.  And none other than Indiana’s own Jimmy Stewart starred in the 1954 movie, The Glenn Miller Story.

Jimmy Stewart in “The Glenn Miller Story”

The final note?  Probably Big Band legend Duke Ellington’s 1983 double album All Star Road Band, recorded live at the Sunset Ballroom here in 1957.  And hey – if you gotta go, how better than to the strains of “Take the ‘A’ Train”?

Solid, Jackson!