August 14, 2016

The Artist as a Clown Part 3: The Noell's from Vaudeville to The Suncoast Primate Santuary

When I moved to Florida in 1981 I met Mae Noell at the Chimp Farm in Tarpon Springs. We got to talking and bonded over our mutual love for the animals and art.

This is Mae Noell with her original 
Gorilla painting in the background

She was born into a family of performers; her father and mother were both well established vaudevillians; “top bill” show people. Her father Jack Roach was a ventriloquist, comedian and lecturer her mother was a talented dancer and musician. Her family later owned and operated a medicine show selling ointments and salves; much like what is available to us in health stores today. The free entertainment brought the folks in and the medicine payed the bills.

Here is an old time medicine show being set up
 the towns people really enjoyed the entertainment.

Mae's father hand carved his own ventriloquist dummy and the component parts, this was not an easy feat to accomplish.

While Anna Mae Roach was busy helping her parents and learning the trade; Bob Noell was busy learning his own skills as a ventriloquist puppeteer and comedy skit performer while traveling the small towns of eastern United States with his foster father and mentor Doc Etling who owned the San Blas Indian Remedy Co, Medicine Show.

When Bob and Mae met it was true love, marriage, followed by children and a career traveling and entertaining which eventually evolved into with their own unique form of entertainment; “Noell’s Ark Gorilla Show”.

Their headliners were chimpanzees who wrestled people. May said they called it Gorilla Show because folks out in the country at that time did not recognize the word chimpanzee. Women would get in the cage with the chimps and the chimps would be gentle with them doing things like examining their hair and pulling out their bobby pins. But the young men who thought they could get the better of the chimps were in for a whopping.

A truck used for travel with Mae's art advertising 
the Gorilla Show

A sculpture at Noell's Ark in Tarpon Springs

When the the Noells retired they step up the Chimp Farm in Tarpon Springs Florida; a home for retired primates. At the Chimp Farm they also took care of some other animals, such as a bear in a cage whose owner was going to shoot rather than build a bigger cage and they owned a nearly 90 year old 12 foot long alligator who was at the farm before they bought it. The primates and other animals they took in were usually sick, old damaged, or abandoned; these were animals that would have been put down.

Chimp Farm roadside entertainment stops like this
 were common in Florida in the 50's and 60's

Noell's Ark was so successful with their breeding of primates that zoo’s would contact them for advice, because at the time many of the zoos were having trouble with their breeding program. 

This is a pastel I painted of one a babv chimpanse born at 
Chimp Farm which is now called 
The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary

Mae told me how many books on primates and zoos had included them as experts in handling the primates. I went to the Clearwater Florida Library on her recommendation and looked at many books sighting the Noell’s as experts and resources in the field of primate care and breeding.

The animals at the Noell’s Chimp Farm may not have the latest most luxurious cages but what made them happy and able to breed well was the love and attention they received from the Noell family; their caretakers. What Mae said is what made them good breeders was love; these animals were part of the family. 

I can attest to that from what I observed, these people really cared for and loved these animals. 

Through the years, Leela with some of her pets

Anyone who owns a pet, whether it be a bird, a cat, or dog knows this is a great truth; love may be most important ingredient in caring for someone be it man or beast.

The Noell's also kept up some of their vaudeville days with yearly performances; a fundraiser at the Masonic Temple in Tarpon Springs and the Suwanee River Festival.

Entertaining is a family affair at this church benefit
Here is the program from the Medicine Show I attended
sadly this was their last show.

Here is Bob Noell with his ventriloquist
dummy getting the better of him.

The Smithsonian Institution interviewed May about her background with the medicine show. I have a copy of her one of her personal accounts of those days. I am sure many of those herbals ointments and tonics sold at the Medicine Shows are similar to the ones I buy in my local health food store.

Here is an old photograph of a Medicine Show Tent rained out, a performers life on the road can be hard

Mae wrote how the Vaudeville performers all got their start in the Medicine Shows.  Performers such as Red Skelton, 
who's father also was a performer in Medicine Shows.

Here is Red Skelton with one of his famous clown paintings; to learn more about his art I have posted two sites, but also do your own search on this master clown and expert 
of the self portrait of an artist as clown.

When you look at television you can see the vaudeville acts and the medicine show as influencing the birth of this new media and how it's influence continues to this day. Think of the sale of soap and cough medicine as funding the shows you watch and the old time medicine show comes to mind.

Mae wrote how the skits they performed went back hundreds of years. This reminds me of how in Medieval times performers would put on what was known as Morality Plays with Biblical themed lessons for the towns people.

Brooks McNamara, Professor of Drama, School of the Arts, New York University said , “ Mae Noell, veteran medicine show and carnival worker, entertainer, historian and artist is a living encyclopedia of the customs and traditions of the outdoor amusement business. She is considered one of America’s National Treasures.”

Here is Mae entertaining with drawings, while she drew recited a ditty that ended with a drawing which when turned upside down was a different drawing.

Here is a page of these drawings she did for me as 
she told me the rhymes that went with each one.

I am grateful for the time I was able to spend with this remarkable woman; meeting her family and her extended family of primates and the other animals which they adopted and cared for. I am so happy to see that the Chimp Farm has survived as The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary and is still being run with the loving care of the children and grandchildren of this remarkable woman.

The Artist as a Clown is a 4 Part Series:

The Artist as a Clown Part 1:

 Mother Daughter Artists; Aleada and Leela Siragusa, Perform as Clowns

 Dave Ryan at Clown Alley Orlando Florida

The Noell's from Vaudeville to The SuncoastPrimate Sanctuary

The Artist As A Clown Part 4: 

Clowns in Art History


The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary is home to over 100 animals with various backgrounds that had no where else to go. They all have unique personalities and characteristics. We invite you to come and see why we came to love each of these special animals by scheduling a visit to the sanctuary. Why not consider “adopting” one of our animals?

Robert Noell and his daughter Jenny Chapman with more information on this fascinating family.   

Bright lights and baloney

From medicine shows to modern arcades, generations of the Noell family have spent their lives persuading people to part with the change in their pockets.

Published October 10, 2004

And the fun continues with Mae Noell's great granddaughter, Jenny Chapman's

"Treasure Island Fun Center"
7770 Seminold Blvd, Seminole Fl 33772
727 391 9105

More on "Red" Skelton and his art:

Information on Medieval Morality Plays:

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