‘A Very Good Act for an Unimportant Place’

Animals, Ambivalence and Abuse in Big-Time Vaudeville
  • Catherine Young


A black bear named Bedelia teeters on a tricycle. Baboons balance on bicycles. Romping poodles drive chariots and sulky carts as they loop around a temporary ring framed by an ornate proscenium arch. A mock fight between fox terriers and baboons follows various tightrope tricks. An anteater from Brazil does nothing; its physical peculiarities render stunt work unnecessary for the animal to entertain. These were some of the offerings of Apdale’s Zoological Circus, a top-of-the-line animal act that worked the big-time vaudeville circuit for over a decade, including a stint at New York City’s illustrious Palace Theatre. Sometimes billed simply as ‘Apdale’s Animals’, theatre managers admired the performance as ‘a very superior children’s act’ (Keith/Albee Collection [hereafter KAC], 1910, p. 106) and were impressed that despite the fact James Apdale did not brandish a whip on stage, the highly trained mammals seemed to perform ‘without the least urging’ (KAC, 1912, p. 219). Enthusiasm for Bedelia the black bear changed, however, when she sauntered into the glittering afternoon sun of Brooklyn’s Coney Island on Sunday, June 23, 1912. At about 4 p.m., Bedelia escaped her restraints, walked out the stage entrance of the New Brighton Theatre, and began meandering through the alarmed crowd. She looked ‘forbiddingly ferocious’ and ‘uttered strange, gruff noises’ (New York Times, 1912, p. 20).


Animal Body Black Bear Audience Member Animal Abuse White Horse 
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Copyright information

© Catherine Young 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Catherine Young
    • 1
  1. 1.The Graduate CenterCity University of New YorkUSA

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