“The circus is of the good old-fashioned kind, and those who enjoy a prolonged and hearty laugh can confidently be recommended to attend. There is frolic and mirth galore, and the memory of such capital fun will not soon fade away…”
(Diamond Fields Advertiser – 9/10 April 1914).
The first thing that strikes me in Gary Boswell’s Orange Grove home is a framed picture of Tickey the Clown, who played a formative role in my Johannesburg childhood. Tickey used to babysit the Boswell boys when they were growing up.
“How has growing up in a circus family influenced your worldview?” I ask.
“If you think about what I have done: hairdressing to flight steward to religious life to I Ching readings to Hospice work; and now the work that I do with people in bereavement and counseling and corporate training. I think what it has allowed me to do is to reinvent myself at every turn. Every time I said I want to do this or try that, my parents were behind me 100%! When I converted to Catholicism they were all there in the church – all my brothers and their wives and my parents – and my brother and his wife are Jewish!
Gary spent a couple of years training to be a monk. “I saw the film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” and that did it for me. I think I thought the life of a monk would be so romantic and serene and sublime and all of that and it’s not at all actually. I converted here at Maryvale. I was already quite knowledgeable about religious things. I started when I was 13. I used to go to Hatha Yoga when I was 11 and 12 at Fairmount in the evening. And the teacher mentioned something to do with Rajah Yoga and that it was to do with breath and so when I was 13 I found Rajah Yoga people and that got me in touch with Gita Obel. So I started investigating eastern religion at an early age”.
His family was close-knit and supportive. “When I said to my father, I want to be a flight steward, computers had just come out, and he kept a list of everywhere I went. He was so proud. He used to take me to the airport and wait for me to come home on an internal flight. He used to make an arrangement with one of the cleaners to wake him up. He was fabulous; my father was marvelous! And also it gave me confidence. I can stand up in an auditorium and talk for an hour and a half without a note or a power point and I can weave in stories about my life or about other people’s lives to make a point. It has given me imagination”.
Trancelike I pore over family photographs of cousins who were the first to do the triple somersault at the Barnum and Bailey Circus in America; Brian Boswell with his tigers, Mr Ironjaws, David Marais on his bungee trapeze Brian Boswell in his cowboy outfit, Tickey as a Koringa, Timmy Turnbull with Nico Mienie (the smallest clown ever to appear in South Africa); the Boswell brothers beside a ‘House Full’ sign in front of the big tent in 1959; Jim Boswell and his liberty horses; the circus lighting plant in 1934, and an early animal cage circus wagon from 1914.
I would have given my eye teeth to see what went on behind the scenes as a child and these photographs evoke the huge excitement of childhood memories of feet dangling off a wooden bench, popcorn, coke and candyfloss, belly laughs at Tickey’s antics and eyes fixed with terror and awe on the trapeze artists leaping through the air.
The family lived in Glenhazel first, and Gary attended Fairmount Primary School.
“The circus is so magical in my memory,” Gary tells me. “Certainly we spent a lot of time with circus people when they were in town… It was called the Boswell Brothers Circus originally…they used to parade in the neighbourhood as an advert and my grandfather used to try and make sure that the parade passed my school at break time so that he could wave at me and I could feel very important. That would have been in the early to mid-sixties. So he used to come down there at break time and wave to me, and it got me into a lot of trouble because I was not a very popular boy at school but when it was circus time I was everybody’s best friend, and they all wanted tickets to the circus and I used to say: “Yes, I’ll get you tickets…” and I couldn’t get tickets to the circus. It was not in my power to do that. And then I had to disappoint them and say it was full or I couldn’t get them. Or try and write them an apology note in adult handwriting… So that is what would happen at Fairmount”.
Childhood birthdays were circus affairs. Gary’s grandfather’s brother, Bill Boswell used to bring Shetland ponies to the house in Glenhazel as a treat for his birthday when he was a child and take all the children around the block on a Shetland. “I used to be petrified because they were cheeky, nasty little buggers… They would bite you.”
The MD of the Civic Theatre, Bob Adams was a friend of the family. On Sundays he used to invite visiting artists and performers to a braai at his house. Here Gary met people like Eartha Kitt, Demis Roussos, Engelbert Humperdinck and Magna Carta. “I had one of the members of Magna Carta begging my father to let him take me out on a date but I was 16 or 17 and he was 40 so my father wouldn’t let him”.
The Boswell brothers (Gary’s grandfather and his brother, Jim) sold the circus to African Theatres in about1970. African Theatres bought the name and then entered into a partnership with Wilkie, but the agreement was they had to use the Boswell name and the name had to come before Wilkie.
A family friend, Cartie, originally owned the Orange Grove house. Cartie played a significant role in introducing Gary to literature, music, foreign languages, and the arts when he was a teenager and he used to visit him on his way home from school. When Cartie died in around 1984, Gary’s father bought the house in 10th Street Orange Grove for Gary.
The Boswell family has made its mark in Orange Grove in many ways. Gary’s aunt, the celebrated singer Eve Boswell was hugely popular at the old Orange Grove Hotel (The Coconut Grove) when he was a child. “She was Eva Colletti…Hungarian... She used to sing and dance with her parents, who were musicians. They were known as the ‘Three Hugos’ and they used to dance and play instruments. Her father was a huge, tall man, and the mother… I don’t think she made 4'03 and her husband, Hugo must have been 6'8'! And they used to do the tango together and the mother used to run up and sit on his shoulder like a little elf. Eve was educated in Switzerland and she spoke a number of languages. She used to play the piano. She was really a talented musician. As a girl of 11 she would tap dance on the xylophone apparently. And she married my father’s brother – my uncle. They met on the circus. The Three Hugos came here when Eve was about 11 or 12…
“She called me her favourite nephew. I don’t know if she said that to my brothers, I never heard that. I used to spend weekends at her house in Emmarentia sometimes. She had a rocking bed which I rather liked. And then when she got married again at Sunnyside Park Hotel, I did her hair for the wedding…”
Gary Boswell can be contacted for counseling and for I Ching readings at email@example.com.