Ernie Clarke

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Ernestine "Ernie" Clarke was a circus aerialist and bareback rider.

From "Psychology for the Millions" by A. P. Spering

... At the other extreme with a long family train, is the chestnut haired cover-girl and circus pin-up girl, Ernestine Clarke, who heads The Fying Clarkonian trapeze act. Her father, recently deceased, was doing double somersaults and full twists on the trapeze bar at the age of sixty-four. His parents and grandparents were performers before him.

Her father is credited with developing the triple somersault on a trapeze bar.

1945 B&B prgm.jpg
Lou Jacobs (clown) proposing to Ernestine Clarke
(Click on picture for larger version)
Circ-45 1L.jpg
Cartoon advertisement for Camel cigarettes
featuring Ernestine Clarke
(Click on picture for larger version)

Ernestine's Family History

Mrs. Elizabeth Clarke of North Hollywood, Calif., sticks to her knitting a good part of the time. And quite an avid knitter she is by her own admission. But let a circus raise its big top on any vacant lot within a couple of hundred miles of the Clarke domocile and the household goes into action. Mrs. Clarke likes to putter about the house when she isn't knitting, but when there is a circus around, she and daughter, Ernestine, and son-in-law, Parley Baer, take off to revel in the realm of sawdust and spangles. "Our automobile," says Mrs. Clarke, "can find a circus lot all by itself if there's a show within a hundred miles." And when the Clarkes arrive on a circus lot, it's like a homecoming celebration. For there are few circus performers in America whom Mrs. Clarke does not know, and in most cases she has been acquainted with their families for generations.

Mrs. Clarke was born on a circus lot, began performing in public when she was 10, managed her father's No. 2 show in Ireland when she was 15, and has spent 37 of her 57 years in the ring as a bareback rider, retiring in 1941. But she is the only member of her family who has given up the circus profession. Her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Hanneford, now past 30, carries on as ringmistress for the bareback riding act of her son, Poodles Hanneford and family, and another son, George Hanneford, also has a family riding act of renown.

Mrs. Clarke's father was Edwin Hanneford, known to intimates as Ned. He was married to Elizabeth Scott in Leeds, England, in 1889. Both were members of well known circus families of that period. Mrs. Hanneford was a tight rope walker and did a variety of riding acts, including jockey, principal and a carrying act with her husband. In addition to being a rider, Mr. Hanneford did a knife throwing act. But Mrs. Hanneford gave up tightrope walking, her daughter recalls, "because father refused to be a rigging man." Bareback riding was more difficult in those days for women than in 1950, Mrs. Clarke points out, because "women rode fully clothed - no skimpy costumes in England and Ireland before the turn of the century."

Mrs. Clarke, second child of the Hanneford family, was born in a living van when the E. H. Bostock Circus was exhibiting in Shaftesbury, Dorsetshire. And she has never been back there. It was when she was 10 years old in 1903, that her parents, after years of scrimping and saving, took out their first show. It was formed in Ireland and never left the Eire boundaries during the first nine years of its existence. The same year, Elizabeth made her debut in public as a performer as Mrs. John Bull in the pantomime, "Cinderella" for Algy's Circus. Algy was a top flight clown of the era. Later she did "Cinderella" in Poole and Bosco's circus in Belfast. In 1908, when Elizabeth was 15, her father put out a No. 2 circus which she managed. "I can still vividly remember," Mrs. Clarke recalls, "coming to a crossroa and going on by myself with my little show while Mother and Father and the rest of the family kept on with the No. 1 show. The pride of having my own living wagon and an illustrious title was nearly lost in my tears and the lump in my throat." She kept the show on the road all season and the next year, the two were amalgamated to form a circus that had 350 horses, about 40 ponies, an elephant, camels, lions, zebra and a cage full of monkeys.

Elizabeth was quite a performer in her father's show. She did a Roman ladder act, worked an elephant and her horse act, appeared in the family riding act, walked a tight wire, did some juggling, presented a high school horse, and performed on a rolling globe. In addition, she helped her mother make wardrobe and received two shillings sixpence a week for maintaining the costumes. In 1912, Hanneford's Circus and Menagerie left Ireland and toured England and Scotland. As in the past, the circus was stored during the winter and the Hannefords played the indoor circuits.

Mr. Hanneford died in June, 1913, and son Poodles took over as head of the family. It was that winter the group played their first vaudeville date with misgivings that turned into triumph. Performing in Hengler's circus at the Olympia in Liverpool, the Hannefords accepted an engagement in vaudeville at the Hippodrome theatre. Mr. Hengler was so upset he predicted the Hannefords "would fall on our collective faces right in the orchestra pit," and Mrs. Clarke says "we almost believed him." Theatre stages in those days slanted as much as a foot from proscenium arch to backwall. "What our horses would do, going alternately up hill and down hill, we didn't know," Mrs. Clarke says. But the engagement was successful and the family played many vaudeville dates in England and America thereafter.

While appearing in the Christmas circus at the Agriculture Hall in London, during the winter of 1913-14, the Hannefords were approached by John Ringling for an engagement with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in America in 1914. But the Hannefords were committed to take their show out that season, in spite of the flattering offer. And Mrs. Hanneford managed the show that season, while Poodles, Elizabeth and George performed in the Blackpool Towers Circus in Blackpool, England. It was a difficult season for the family show, however, with Great Britain in the throes of World War I. Many of the circus horses were commandeered by the government, and Mrs. Clarke says "Soon our show that we loved and took such pride in was just a shell of its former self." So the Hanneford circus was disbanded for the last time and in March, 1915, the family sailed for the United States. They remained in New York until they opened with the Barnum Circus in old Madison Square Garden on April 1. For four years, the Hanneford family riding act was a feature of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, while the family played winter seasons of 1916 and 1917 with Santos and Artigas Circus in Havana, Cuba.

In the winter of 1918, the Hannefords appeared at the Hippodrome Theatre under the direction of Charles Dillingham and in the Spring of 1919, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circuses were merged. That was the year that Elizabeth Hanneford met her future husband, Ernest Clarke, aerialist and bareback rider, who had been a performer in the Ringling show continuously since 1906. Ernest Clarke was the eldest son of Charles Clarke, owner of Clarke's Continental Circus in England, and was of the fifth generation of the Clarke family of circus owners and artists in that country. He and his brother, Charles F. Clarke perfected a two-people flying return act and with their younger brother, Percy, presented a bareback riding act. The appeared with the Lord Sanger Circus in England for a number of years and joined Barnum & Bailey Circus, then in the last year of a five-year European tour, during the winter of 1901-02 in Paris.

When the Barnum & Bailey Circus returned to the United States for its 1903 tour, the Clarkonian aerial act and the Clarke Family of riders came with it. For versatility, Ernest Clarke is acknowledged to be one of the greatest flyers who ever mounted a pedestal and he was the first to complete a triple somersault and a number of other difficult feats. After the 1903 season, the Clarkes went to Cuba with Pubillones Circus and to Mexico with Orrin Brothers Circus, re-turning in 1905 to New York to open at the Hippodrome Theatre. From 1906 to 1918, the Clarkes were featured in the Ringling Brothers circus. Alternating the two great circuses over routes on American tours year after year, the Ringlings, who had owned the Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1906, decided to combine the two shows into one - the largest ever to take the road, in the spring of 1919. The Clarke family of the Ringling show and the Hanneford family of the Barnum & Bailey show figured in the merger in more ways than one.

For on November 21, 1920, Ernest Clarke and Elizabeth Hanneford were united in the Little Church Around the Corner in New York City. The courtship of Elizabeth Hanneford and Ernest Clarke, members of two royal families of the circus, took place during the two seasons they were together on the merged Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, Miss Hanneford appearing in her family riding act and Mr. Clarke as the flier in the remarkable Clarkonians' flying return act. But after their marriage in the fall of 1920, bookings of the family acts separated the newly-weds during the 1921 season. That year, the Hannefords were featured by Sells-Floto circus owned by the American Circus corporation, while the Clarkes remained with the Ringlings, their flying act having been a fixture in the show since 1906. Since Mrs. Clarke was a bareback rider and not an aerialist, she went with the Hanneford family act that year. However, after the birth of their daughter, Ernestine, Mrs. Clarke joined her husband on the Ringling show, where they remained through the 1926 season, playing indoor dates during the winter months.

The Hannefords were engaged to present their bareback riding act on the stage in "The Circus Princess," a musical comedy at the Winter Garden in New York in 1927, and Mrs. Clarke joined the troupe for that engagement. Her brother, Poodles, had a small speaking part in the production and he and Mrs. Clarke did a dance specialty together. When Charlie Chaplin produced his feature picture, "The Circus", the management of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood arranged for a circus prologue on the stage. The Hanneford family riding act took part, as did Emil Pallenberg's bears, Ed and Jennie Rooney, aerialists, and several others who had been headliners with the Ringling circus and were friends of the Hannefords and Mrs. Clarke. The engagement stretched into an eight months' stint, and thereafter, the Hannefords and Clarkes joined forces to form a unit. Under this merger, the bareback personnel included Poodles Hanneford and his wife, Elizabeth; Ernest's brother, Percy Clarke, and the elder Mrs. Hanneford, ringmistress. Ernest and Charles Clarke continued their flying return act together, and the Charles Clarke family had a juggling number. The unit quit the American circus field for two seasons to appear at the Olympic theatre in London and the Empire theatre in Paris.

About this time, the American Circus corporation, owner of the Sells-Floto show and four other large railroad circuses, arranged for Tom Mix, then at the height of his popularity as a western motion picture star, to make personal appearances in the arena, and anticipating a heavy drawing power, proceeded to contract outstanding acts to support the movie personality. So the Clarke and Hanneford families with their feature acts were with Sells-Floto show for the second time, that year. At the conclusion of the 1929 season, John Ringling purchased the five circuses owned by the American Circus corporation, and began their operation in 1930. That season, the Hanneford-Clarke unit forsook the circus field to appear in grandstand shows at fairs and exhibitions in amusement parks, but they returned to the Sells-Floto fold in 1931, the final year of the Tom Mix three-year engagement.

In 1932, the families shifted to another Ringling-owned circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace, where they remained two years, and thence to another Ringling property, the Al. G. Barnes circus in 1914. During these years, two new members had joined the Hanneford riding act, Gracie Hanneford, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Poodles Hanneford, and Ernestine Clarke, daughter of Ernest and Elizabeth Clarke, both in their early teens. The season 1935 saw the Clarkes and Hannefords grouping with an eastern motorized show, Gorman Brothers circus. It was the first time since they had disposed of their wagon show in England a score of years previously, that the Hannefords and Mrs. Clarke had traveled with an overland circus. The Clarkes and Hannefords went their separate ways in 1936 and were not reunited except for a brief period in the winter of 1942.

The Clarkes were with Cole Brothers-Clyde Beatty circus with Mrs. Clarke and daughter, Ernestine, appearing in principal riding acts, while Ernest and Percy Clarke collaborated in another bareback number. The family, made what Mrs. Clarke describes as "the one really great mistake we made in show business" in 1937. That season, they went out with a small motorized circus originating on the West Coast, which had a brief and unsuccessful tour. Meanwhile, Tom Mix had organized his own circus which had been growing rapidly since its formation in 1934, and he engaged the Clarkes for the 1938 season. That year, Mrs. Clarke, daughter Ernestine, and Percy Clarke did principal riding acts, the Clarkes produced a big 12-people bareback number, and the Flying Clarkonians closed the performance with Ernestine making her debut as a flier. That was the last year for the members of the Clarke family together in a circus.

In 1939, they played grandstand shows at fairs and in amusement parks as they had done in 1930. and in the fall, went to the Hawaiian islands to appear in a show produced by E. K. Fernandez, who annually imports American talent. The following year, the Clarkonians’ flying act was the free attraction of the Ira C. Huggins carnival attractions in the Pacific Northwest, and also the act appeared on Treasure Island at the World's Fair in San Francisco. It was at the Western Washington State Fair in Puyallup, Washington, that Ernest Clarke became ill and he passed away on January 10, 1941. Like, the good troupers they are, Mrs. Clarke and daughter carried on that year, joining Russell Brothers motorized circus. Ernestine was a baton spinner in the opening tournament, did a principal riding act, participated in the big riding act in the flying return number with her uncle, Charles. Mrs. Clarke was ringmistress for the riding acts, and she did a finish trick that always surprised the audience and elicited extensive applause. Dressed in a formal evening gown, Mrs. Clarke concluded the act by discarding her whip, gathering up her skirt, and making a fork jump to the horse. She also took part in the Charles Clarke family juggling act. It was her last season as an active performer, although she remained with daughter, Ernestine, with circuses until 1946.

In 1942, Mrs. Clarke and "Ernie" were under the Cole Brothers banner, where the latter demonstrated her versatility. She appeared in the opening spec, did a principal riding act, performed on the Spanish web, rode a high school horse, and was in the Reiffenach family bareback number. Mrs. Clarke was ringmistress for the principal act, her only appearance in the performance. During the winter of 1942-43, the Clarkes joined her brother Poodles and his riding act for vaudeville dates and Polack Brothers Indoor circus. The Clarkes went back to the Ringling show for the first time in 17 years in 1943, when Ernestine appeared in production numbers and one of Art Concellos flying return acts. During the following winter, Mrs. Clarke and Ernestine trained two bareback riding horses and in 1944, Ernestine was a featured bareback rider, as well as having her own flying act on the Ringling show.

A beautiful girl, Ernestine was picked for the cover of the Ringling program in 1944, and her picture on one of her fine bareback horses, with Clown Lou Jacobs, was featured. Her flying act brought back the "Clarkonians" title to the Ringling circus for the first time since 1926. It was in 1948, while Ernestine was still a featured Ringling performer that she was married to Parley Baer, California radio artist, and she gave up her circus career at his request. Thus she and her mother retired to the comparative quiet of housekeeping and homelife in North Hollywood.

They were the first of the Hanneford troupe to ewe up trouping as the Poodles Hanneford and George Hanneford riding acts are still going strong, with another generation of their families joining their parents in the arena. Even so, the Clarkes have not forgotten the art of the circus. When Ernestine's cousin, Kay Frances Hanneford, daughter of George Hanneford, was injured during a circus engagement in Chicago recently, Ernestine flew to the Windy City from California, and went into the act without a rehearsal. Last season, when Mrs. Clarke was vacationing with brother George and family, who were appearing in their riding act in a Montreal, Canada, amusement park, her niece and nephews, Kay Frances, George and Tommy, dared her to mount one of their rosinback horses. Mrs. Clarke took the dare, removed her shoes, vaulted on the horse, and stood up without a mechanic for a few laps of the ring to the plaudits of her admiring young relatives. "And why not?" asks Mrs. Clarke. "Hadn't I been a bareback rider 37 years - from 1904 to 1941?"


  • A. Morton Smith, "Circus Stars of Yesteryears, VI. Elizabeth Hanneford Clarke" Hobbies, December 1950, pp. 26-27;
  • "Circus Stars of Yesteryears, VI. Elizabeth Hanneford Clarke" Hobbies, January 1951, pp. 28-29.

This information should be confirmed with additional sources.

Her husband, Parley Baer


Her Husband, Parley Baer (1914-2002), was from salt Lake City. He was a circus ringmaster before serving as an US Army Air Corps Captain in the Pacific during World War II. (He won seven Battle Stars.) He became a radio actor and was the voice of "Chester" on Gunsmoke. During the 50's he also trained lions and tigers.

Date of Birth
5 August 1914, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Date of Death
22 November 2002, Los Angeles, California, USA. (complications from a stroke)
Birth Name
Parley Edward Baer
Ernestine Clarke Baer (9 April 1946 - 5 August 2000) (her death) 2 children


  • The voice of Ernie Keebler on the Keebler cookies commercials.
  • In addition to his running role of Chester Proudfoot on the Gunsmoke radio series that ran from 1952 to 1961, Baer was frequently heard on such radio programs as The Lux Radio Theater, Escape and Suspense.
  • During his struggling years, he served as a circus ringmaster for Circus Vargas and Barnum & Bailey. Later he would serve on the board of the community L.A. Circus, and was a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo.
  • Hefty, balding character actor of mostly comedy hijinks who, during his six-decade career, proved a durable, hot-headed foil for TV's top sitcom stars such as Lucille Ball, Ozzie Nelson and Andy Griffith.
  • In 1946, he met and married circus aerialist and bareback rider Ernestine Clarke. They were together for 54 years until her death, producing two daughters, Kim and Dale.
  • Studied drama at the University of Utah.
  • He played the part of "Chester" on Gunsmoke on radio. The part on TV was played by Dennis Weaver.
  • Parley trained and worked with lions and tigers at the old Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, served on the board of L.A. Circus, and was a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo.
  • Once worked an act of seven tigers, at Jungleland, Thousand Oaks, California.
  • With Ralph Edwards, co-founded Pioneer Pacific Broadcasters.
  • Created and toured his own circuses, doubling as Ringmaster and Performance Director, roles he filled as well on other circus titles.
  • Served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theatre in WW II, earning seven Battle Stars and a Presidential Citation. Attained rank of Captain.
  • Wrote publicity for Al. G. Barnes Circus, in winters. Announcer at Salt Lake City radio station, SLM.

Personal Quotes

  • "Radio is the most nearly perfect medium for an actor. If you have an audience of 5 million people listening to you, you're giving 5 million performances."


Ernie Clarke at the Internet Movie Database


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