Circus veteran regales crowd with real-life tales

Wednesday, September 26, 2007 | 9:02 p.m. CDT; updated 10:50 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Having traveled from the south of California to the north of Maine, Gale Fuller has vivid memories of his years with the circus. As he painted stories of his past for nearly 30 intent listeners, Fuller made the words come alive, like the time he brought a black bear home and felt his arm almost fall out of the socket because of the animal’s strength.

People are drawn to the circus the same way they are drawn to animals — that’s why people are attracted to Sara Gruen’s novel, “Water for Elephants,” Fuller, 80, said at Tuesday night’s One Read discussion at the Columbia Public Library.

Upcoming One Read Events

Sunday “The Greatest Show on Earth” Doors open 6 p.m., The Blue Note A showing of the Academy Award-winning movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” at 7 p.m. will follow a performance of circus clown Joey Kelly at 6:30 p.m. Kelly is the grandson of Emmett Kelly, the famous circus clown and native of Houston, Mo., featured in the movie. Free tickets are available at Daniel Boone Regional Library facilities and The Blue Note. Tuesday • Sara Gruen book signing 2 to 4 p.m., Friends Room, Columbia Public Library Line numbers will be passed out beginning at 1:30 p.m. • Author’s Talk Doors open at 6:30 p.m., Launer Auditorium, Columbia College, Gruen will discuss her book “Water for Elephants” and how it has affected her life.

“There is something in it for everyone,” the retired circus performer said.

During the early- and mid-1930s, the Fuller Troupe traveled the country performing side shows and main events. Fuller’s specialty was tightrope walking, although he also did bareback riding on horses with his siblings.

His entire family was involved in the circus shows: His sister was a contortionist and acrobat; his brother performed rope tricks; his mother played a calliope; and his father, a dairy farmer, was the program and equestrian director.

“The more acts you could do, the more money you could make,” Fuller said.

Fuller, who lives in Fulton, fielded questions about his life in the circus and how it differed from the circus life described in the novel, set in the 1930s.

“The story is real enough to keep people interested, but the characters are fiction,” Fuller said. “‘Water for Elephants’ is the type of book that’s hard to put down once you start.”

“Water for Elephants” is the story of a young man who unintentionally joins the circus, as told by the man 70 years later in a nursing home.

Karen Entrikin, community member of the One Read reading panel, said it’s always great to learn about one person’s history that ties together what everyone has read.

“It was interesting to find out about Fuller’s life during the Great Depression and his family travels,” Entrikin said.

Fuller said the elephant abuse portrayed in the novel “was beyond any experience I had.” The elephants were like people, he said, each with its own personality.

As for the book’s title, Fuller shared a tidbit of circus insight: “You have to take the elephant to the water; you don’t take water to the elephant. That would be an endless job.”

Now in its sixth year, the One Read program through Daniel Boone Regional Library has reached more people each year, as measured by the number of One Read books checked out at the library. One Read aims to heighten the community’s interest in reading and spark conversation through book discussions and other programs.

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