Franz Althoff

From Circopedia

Franz Althoff Portrait.jpg

Gröẞter Rennbahn-Circus Europas

By Raffaele De Ritis

Germany's Circus Franz Althoff, "Europe's Largest Hippodrome-Circus," was truly, in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the continent's largest and more original circuses. Although it was active for no more than two decades after WWII, it was a circus industry’s trendsetter in several aspects. Its director, Franz Althoff (1908-1987), brilliantly developed collaborative strategies with foreign colleagues, and his circus was the first to regularly visit countries outside the German borders in the early postwar era. Circus Franz Althoff was also the first European circus of that era to develop an acceptable compromise between the grandiosity of the American-style three-ring circus and the refinement and intimacy of the traditional European circus.

Franz Althoff also improved the circus performing space, introducing innovative concepts in big-top engineering and design. At the same time, he foresaw the potential the development of large indoor sport arenas offered to the European circus industry, and he participated in the emergence of the so-called "circus festivals" of the 1950-60s, which were held in these arenas and proved an efficient way to catch the attention of a public solicited by an increasing number of new forms of entertainment such as music recording, television and wide-screen movie spectacles.

The broadness and scope of his circus project, as well as his genial personality, helped him close important deals with the American movie industry. A remarkably gifted animal trainer, he created spectacular yet elegant presentations of horses and elephants; his forty-eight-horse liberty"Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip. act remains the largest in circus history. His shows, with their impressive variety of animal acts, spectacular production numbers and top international talents, are remembered as a modern paradigm of what a large-scale classic traveling circus was meant to be.

Circus Dominik Althoff

Circus Dominik Althoff (c.1930)
The Althoff circus dynasty is one of the world’s oldest: It has been documented in Germany since the sixteenth century. With four distinct branches, it is also one of the most intricate: Seventy-two different Althoff circuses have been computed over time, not including various usurpers. Franz Althoff was born in Hülchrath, a district of Grevenbroich in North Rhine-Whestphalia, Germany, on February 15, 1908. He was the fourth son of Dominik Althoff (1882-1974), of the Althoffs’ "Reinische" branch, and Adele, née Mark, a haute-école(French) A display of equestrian dressage by a rider mounting a horse and leading it into classic moves and steps. (See also: High School) rider.

Franz had seven siblings: Carola (1903-1987), Sabine (1906-1918), Helene (1907-1991), Henriette (1910-2004), Minna (1911-1987), Adolf (1913-1998) and Jeanette (1915-1987). All children were trained in a variety of circus disciplines by Dominik, a respected circus director and equestrian who had created in 1905 his own Circus Dominik Althoff, a traveling enterprise of medium size.

In 1927 Dominik was approached by the famous animal dealer Hermann Ruhe to create a new venture with Wilhelm Hagenbeck's sons, Willy and Carl. The two junior Hagenbecks, had been somewhat erratic circus entrepreneurs, who had mostly exploited their famous name around Europe by renting out their animal acts—as opposed to their cousins, Heinrich and Lorenz, who were far more successful and reliable and ran the famous Circus Carl Hagenbeck, named after their legendary father, as well as several circus buildings.

Thus, Dominik's circus briefly took the name of Hagenbeck & Althoff and incorporated some of the Hagenbeck brothers’ animal acts in his show. Among the members of the new company were the Trio Barlay (of the Kwansik family) and the equestrian Harry Williams: They would play an important role in the Althoff siblings’ history. It is at that time that young Franz started to learn circus management and began to show a natural talent for horse training and presentation. The Hagenbeck-Althoff partnership dissolved in 1932, and the circus reverted to its old Dominik Althoff title. (Willy and Carl Hagenbeck lent their name to another circus venture under the management of Oskar Hoppe).

Europe's Youngest Circus Director

In 1934, following a winter season at Paris' Cirque d'Hiver with his family’s equestrian acts, Dominik passed the direction of his circus on to Franz and his sister Carola. (Carola had married in 1931 the equestrian Reinhold Kwansik, better known as Harry Barlay). At age twenty-six, Franz Althoff was hailed as Europe's youngest circus director—a title he actually shared with Jérôme Medrano in Paris. Franz took care of the circus’s technical aspects and of its animals, while Carola oversaw the administration.

Circus Franz Althoff Poster (c.1938)
Franz Althoff equipped their circus with a four-pole-in-line big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) and, in 1935, began to use a hippodrome format, clearly inspired by Circus Krone, the German trendsetter of the period. Even if modest in size compared to its model (except for a monumental façade "à la Sarrasani"), Franz’s new big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) was a clear indication of the taste that would inform his future choices. Up to that time, Althoff circuses had stuck to a more conventional format, and had steadily avoided the temptation of giantism.

In 1937, the circus took name of Franz Althoff, probably because two of Franz’s and Carola’s siblings, Adolf and Helene, went on to create a show of their own, which they named Circus Geschwister Althoff (literally meaning "Althoff Siblings’ Circus.") It was a short-lived venture: In 1939, Adolf and Helene parted company; Adolf continued with his Circus Adolf Athoff, while Helene, who had married Oskar Hoppe, created with her husband the Circus Helene Hoppe.

Meanwhile, Franz and Carola's circus prospered. They had an important collection of horses and their menagerie included four elephants, a hippo and various exotic animals. August Molker joined the show with one of Hagenbeck's finest tiger acts. Franz and Carola also began to develop a judicious strategy of winter engagements between their touring seasons, which would bring its rewards to both Franz and Carola after the war.

For the winter 1937-38, they were back with their horses at Paris' Cirque d'Hiver, where Franz (and Carola) started a long friendship with the circus’s new owners, the Bouglione family; they then went on to perform at Rouen's circus building, and from there to London's Agricultural Hall. In the following winters they appeared in various German circus buildings (such as the circuses of Magdeburg and Breslau) for winter seasons often produced by Jakob Busch.

In 1938, Franz finally married his old flame, Latvian aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc. Olga Mathissen, who had been one of Jakob Busch's performers. The previous year, in 1937, she had given birth to their son, Harry Althoff (1937-2008), who was to become a highly accomplished horse trainer. Franz and Olga had two other children, Marianne, born in 1940, and Franziska, born in 1947.

Franz and Carola continued to perform during the war years; unlike several major German circus entrepreneurs, they didn’t adhere to the NSDAP (the Nazi Party): On the contrary, they sheltered in their circus many Jewish employees, artists or not, whom they protected from Nazi controls by hiding them behind a double wall built in the circus’s laundry wagon. It is during the war years that they developed their circus’s signature attraction(Russian) A circus act that can occupy up to the entire second half of a circus performance., the "Roman Races," which had been popularized by Circus Krone in the 1920's. It became a Circus Franz Althoff trademark for all its existence, as well as of Carola’s own Circus Williams after the war—until the tragic death of her second husband, Harry Williams, who was killed performing the stunt.

The Post-War Period

Like all their German colleagues, the Althoffs had been struggling for survival in the last years of WWII. When the war was finally over, Franz had difficulties to obtain a license from the allied forces to restart his circus, and he went to work with his horses for Circus Holzmüller during the 1945 season. As for Carola, she had married a second time in 1941 with equestrian Harry Williams; Williams had a double citizenship, German and English, which proved very useful. In 1946 they were able to launch their own Great Williams Circus Show (so titled in English). Carola and Franz would always remain very close and their circuses, both of which would prove very successful, maintained a collaborative relationship.

Poster featuring Erika Wyss & Johnny De Kok (1950)
In the winter of 1946, in one of the brilliant moves that distinguished his career, Franz built a steel-and-wood round building in Stuttgart. Initially used for the winter circus season, it proved useful as a source of income, hosting revues, operettas and concerts until 1949. In the struggling cities of post-war Germany, these ephemeral and multi-purpose structures saved the existence of several circuses, notably Williams in Köln and Barlay in Berlin—not to mention Krone in Munich. Franz’s big-top reverted temporarily to a lighter four-pole-in-square format.

His show had nonetheless a herd of eleven elephants, one of which brought Franz Althoff's circus to national attention. In Wuppertal, in July 1950, Althoff’s baby elephant Tuffy was transported over the Wupper river on a suspended monorail for a press event. Suddenly, Tuffy banged the car open and jumped thirty-nine feet down into the river. Amazingly, she survived unharmed; Tuffy’s plunge became part of the Wuppertal’s lore and, for years, images of the incident were used on postcards, food products, children books, etc. For the rest of the 1950 season, the circus was renamed Tuffy-Althoff! (A smart and gentle elephant, Tuffy would eventually land at Alexis Gruss, Jr.’s Cirque à L'Ancienne in France, where she proudly performed until 1989.)

In the early 1950s, Franz Althoff began a successful collaboration with the French Cirque Bouglione. The Bouglione family had a rich menagerie and a rich production of cage acts, created mostly by Firmin Bouglione. This was helpful to some European growing circuses that were short in animal acts or didn’t have a menagerie, like Feijóo y Castilla in Spain or Orfei in Italy. For its 1950 tour, Joseph Van Been (Joseph Bouglione’s Belgian brother-in-law) joined Franz Althoff with a lion act. His was one of the program's three cage acts, along with Doris Arndt and her polar bears and Johnny de Kok’s and Erika Wyss’s leopards.

The following winter, Althoff's horses and elephants performed again at Bouglione's Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, then the mighty Cirque Bouglione toured Germany in association with Franz Althoff in 1951 and 1952, under the title Cirque des Frères Bouglione de Paris. The format of the show was matching Franz Althoff’s tastes: the Bougliones traveled with a 68 x 42 meters big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau), an important menagerie and a program rich in animal acts. Thrills were provided by the double human cannonball of the Raluy brothers and the rotating airplane act of the Flying Constellations (Bronley).

In the winter 1951-1952, Franz Althoff's growing elephant herd was a perfect Christmas treat for Londoners at the huge Harringay arena, where the clever impresario Tom Arnold had it presented by the Indian-American film star Sabu (Sabu Dastagir, 1924-1963), who was not unfamiliar with elephants since his father had been a mahout. The 1952 season continued with the Bougliones, until they had to return to their Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. Franz Althoff spent the last six months of the season in Holland, in association with Circus Mikkenie, then he spent the Holiday Season with the Bougliones at the Cirque d’Hiver.

The New Hippodrome-Circus Franz Althoff

Like the Cirque Bouglione, many European circuses in the early 1950s toured with American-style four-pole-in-line big tops, but it was mostly an eye-catching advertising ploy (and an easy way to expand the tent’s seating capacity). These shows used generally a single ring placed in the middle of their elongated tent, which impaired the visual comfort of a large part of the audience. A few of them had attempted the three-ring format, but mediocre results combined with higher costs led them to quickly abandon the idea.

Franz Althoff in The Netherlands (1953)
On his part, Franz Althoff had begun to reconsider the three-ring format patterned on the early Krone model, based on his experience of the war years. For his 1953 season, he launched a four-pole big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau), a "hippodrome circus" like Krone in the 1930s, but more intimate. The show used three rings in its first half, with a few single-ring star presentations, and the hippodrome space, devoid of its rings, was used in the second half, with fast-action production numbers: exotic animal tableaus, wild-west presentations and Roman races, plus Althoff’s spectacular "elephant ballet" and large equestrian display.

The circus toured The Netherlands for the entire season, where it staged street parades and met with enormous success. The mammoth program included two of the Bougliones' cage acts. The season ended in the winter at Brussels's Palais des Sport under the title "American Circus Show." The Belgian capital would provide a regular winter home to Franz Althoff's circus. For the 1954 season, the circus visited Sweden in combination with the Cirkus Scott of the Bronett family. In those early years, Franz affirmed his talent at building European relationships; he also opened a channel with the Knie family in Switzerland, who would provide Althoff's growing show with a variety of animal acts including their famous cage acts presented by Vojtech Trubka or August Natsch.

At the same time, Franz Althoff's menagerie was expanding and was becoming the most diverse in Europe: Beside an important horse collection in its stables and a large herd of elephants, it included two giraffes, Europe’s only traveling rhino and a wide variety of exotic animals, among which thirty camels that participated in a spectacular hippodrome tableau. In the mid-fifties, one of the key performers in Althoff’s signature chariot races was the young Wolfgang Holzmair, who had made his debut with Franz Althoff as a stable boy at age fourteen and was now the show's equestrian director.

Althoff's "American Circus" in Brussels (1955)
For its 1955 season, Circus Franz Althoff toured The Netherlands in association with the Strassburgers, the great German Jewish circus family, which had left Germany and settled in The Netherlands with the help of impresario Frans Mikkenie during the rise of Nazism. Under the name Althoff-Strassburger the two equestrian dynasties offered wonderful synchronized liberty"Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip. acts presented simultaneously on three rings—a feature the Italian Togni family will later adopt in their Circo Americano.

In the winter 1955-56, following its customary "American" fall-winter season in Belgium, Circus Franz Althoff got involved in the new project of two French impresarios, Pierre Andrieu (the manager of Paris’s Alhambra music-hall) and circus impresario Hubert de Malafosse, who were launching what is historically considered the first "Circus Festival" concept at Paris's huge Vel' d'Hiv (Velodrome d’Hiver) arena. Althoff provided the core of the program, which also included Paulina and Albert Schumann's haute-école(French) A display of equestrian dressage by a rider mounting a horse and leading it into classic moves and steps. (See also: High School) (in what would remain their only appearance in France), and the legendary Albert Fratellini, who teamed up with the clowns Maïss and Polo Rivel.

The "circus festival" idea immediately caught the attention of Juan Carcellé, Spain’s most prominent impresario, who launched a similar (and more enduring) festival at Barcelona's brand new Palau dels Esports (Sport Palace) the following winter (1956-57); once again, Franz Althoff's circus was hired to flesh up the show, which was staged in a large hippodrome format. Although it came with an award at the end of the run (presented by the management, not by a jury), Carcellé’s show was a circus festival in name only—but nonetheless, it was the event that later inspired (in 1974) the much more legitimate International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo.

The following winter, Circus Franz Althoff visited Switzerland, playing the large arenas of Basel and Zurich. It was back in Sweden in 1961, once again in association with the Bronetts, under the title Amerikansk Supercirkus. Althoff then visited a few cities in France—an exchange with the Bougliones who, in turn, traveled part of Althoff’s German route. For the winter of 1961-1962, after its traditional Belgian visit, Franz staged his first (and only) edition of a "circus festival" on the Spanish model at Dortmund's immense Westfalenhalle, in Germany, and repeated the show in March 1962 in Antwerp in Belgium.


In the mid-fifties, Franz Althoff began to develop his two signature acts, which became two circus history’s milestones. His elephant herd, now fourteen strong, was brilliantly staged in an ensemble presentation in the large, ring-free arena; This model would strongly inspire the later presentations of Gunther Gebel-Williams and Willy Togni (and then his nephew Flavio).
Franz Althoff's Elephant Act (1955)
The other, even more remarkable presentation was the liberty"Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip. act of forty-eight horses, not presented in a quick, traditional “carousel” in the round, but as a full-fledged act occupying the entire hippodrome. It merged groups of Anglo-Arabs (6 gray, 12 blacks, 6 white and 6 bay), Austrian Lipizzans (6 white, 6 gray), and 6 rare “tigerschecken” (leopard) Danish horses. The chromatic effect of their twelve-minute serpentine choreography remains unique in circus history.

Later, in 1960, Franz built an original novelty act: Four elephants and four of his “tigerschecken” horses working together in a liberty"Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip. act. (In 1983 Flavio Togni, always attentive to the German school of horse training, recreated the act with four elephants and four palominos, and won a Silver Clown at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo). Franz also began a regular collaboration with the animal training school of Erie Klant (1912-1990), Willy Hagenbeck's heir and stepson, based in Cauberg, in The Netherlands, which became in the 1960s Europe's most important provider of cage acts and talented cat and bear trainers.

At that time, Europe's leading tent supplier was, and had been since 1872, the Stromeyer company from Konstanz. It was responsible for the evolution of the modern big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) and had developed in the early 1920s the classic European four-pole-in-square support system, allowing steadier and perfectly round circus tents. In the 1950s Peter Stromeyer, was contacted by Frei Otto (1925-2015), a young architect interested in understanding the potential of fabrics in the emerging technology of cable-based light architecture.

At the same time, Stromeyer was developing innovative approaches with his European circus clients, such as Knie, Togni, Krone, Bertram Mills and most of the industry in Northern Europe. A first cable-based concept was initially attempted by Stromeyer for England's Chipperfield Circus huge big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) in 1953. It was a rather complicated affair that used eight poles in double line, connected to twelve giant quarterpoles. By drastically reducing the number of quarterpoles to support the tent halfway, it improved the audience’s visibility, but the system was still based on the use of quarterpoles.

Then, in 1958, Franz Althoff began to research ways of improving his own big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau), in terms of both audience’s visibility and
Franz Althoff's 48-Horse Act under his Revolutionary Big Top (1967)
setup. He started with a tent supported by four poles in square with an additional two poles in line, on the model Krone had used before the war, which freed of poles the hippodrome. But it still required a large quantity of quarterpoles to support the canvas. Finally, in the spring of 1963, the collaboration between Peter Stromeyer and Frei Otto finally gave Franz Althoff the most revolutionary big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) concept of the time, which would set an important milestone in the history of circus tents.

The new elongated tent was supported by a combination of ten lightweight trellis poles placed in double line and supporting the tent with cables at various points; the specific cut and assembly of the tent sections between each couple of poles (alternating convex and concave cut lines) allowed them to self-sustain under tension. The result was that the big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) was completely quarterpole(American) A support pole placed midway between the main poles and the sidewall of a circus tent.-free. The canvas tent, 64 x 42 meters, had a capacity of 3.800 seats, and although it looked inside like a portable sports arena, reviewers thought it gave the show a surprisingly warm atmosphere. The following August, Stromeyer delivered an identical structure to Darix Togni in Italy.

Franz Althoff’s big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) also marked a milestone in the history of light architecture. In 1967, Frei Otto would sign the self-sustained light structure (the first of the genre) of the German pavilion in Montreal’s Expo (World Fair), and in 1972 the canvas roof of the Olympic Stadium in Munich. Cable-sustained and tensile membrane tents would later spread in the circus industry worldwide. The setup operation of Franz Althoff’s revolutionary big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) worked brilliantly, and he took the circus to a successful visit of Austria until August, before a new adventure.

Movie Time

In September 1963, fifty-two circus wagons filled with equipment and eighteen more filled with animals were loaded in Austria on two special trains heading for Barcelona. The previous year, Hollywood producer Samuel Bronston had bought a huge movie-studio facility in Madrid. He had already produced several star-studded high-budget epics in Spain at a much lower cost than he would have done in Hollywood. His made-in-Spain films included El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Harry & Marianne Althoff with Claudia Cardinale and John Smith (1964)
The Fall of the Roman Empire had been a very expensive flop, and Bronston thought of producing a movie on a subject that could be spectacular while not requiring the construction(French) A temporary circus building, originally made of wood and canvas, and later, of steel elements supporting a canvas top and wooden wall. Also known as a "semi-construction." of expensive sets: A circus story, which, for good measure, would be filmed in Cinerama. Titled Circus World, the project was initially assigned to director Nicholas Ray (who had co-authored the film's concept), then went to Frank Capra, who halfway into the shooting passed the final directorial credit to Henry Hathaway. Circus World was to feature three major movie stars: John Wayne, Claudia Cardinale and Rita Hayworth. Bronston needed a fully functional circus of large proportions that could look like the American idea of what a big circus was: Huge, with three rings and a significant herd of elephants.

Circus Franz Althoff, the largest European circus at the time, worked in the American style (or the European idea thereof) and thus perfectly fitted the bill. Franz was credited as circus consultant in the opening titles; his warmth, his geniality, his great flexibility, his staff of top trainers and collaborators, and the artists he had under contract were responsible in large part for the movie’s success—not to mention his children Harry and Marianne, who stood in for the stars (notably John Smith and Claudia Cardinale) in dangerous circus stunts. The filming started in September on the docks in Barcelona with the spectacular scene of the sinking of the circus ship—one of the many catastrophes and accidents that are apparently required in American circus movies.

Barcelona’s opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, was transformed into a circus for some scenes, and the more legitimate Circo Price in Madrid was used to shoot part of the spectacular lion act of Henri Dantès, who was included in the movie plot in the role of Emil Schuman. Shooting continued in Madrid in November, in Bronston’s studios and in the city itself, notably in the Parco del Retiro, where the beautiful final sequence was filmed; it has survived as one of the most spectacular circus scenes in movies. The style, richness and quality of Franz Althoff's circus can be seen in the film—even though it was a circus story set at the turn of the twentieth century. Franz himself is briefly appearing with his elephant and horse act, and some production numbers, such as his Wild West tableau with its dashing stagecoach and wild horses, are featured.

Before leaving Spain, Franz Althoff’s circus gave a series of performances in a sport arena in Madrid, then moved to Brussels for its traditional winter season. Since it coincided with the film’s release, the show at Brussels' Cirque Royal was retitled Matt Master's Film Circus, after the name of the circus in the movie. Unfortunately, Circus World, which had been filmed in the very expensive Cinerama format (which used three synchronized cameras, thus complicating the filming and tripling the footage costs), didn’t help Samuel Bronston’s finances: He filed for bankruptcy just as the film hit the theaters. Franz Althoff's adventure in movies didn’t ended with Circus World, however: In 1965, he took to Rome the entire circus's menagerie to shoot the Noah's Ark scene of John Huston's The Bible.

The Giant Circus’s Last Years

In the mid-1960s, Franz Althoff’s circus was still flourishing, offering a wide variety of very good acts: Multiple cage acts, such as the Klant-Hagenbeck mixed group presented by Charles Dubé or Miss Yvonne and polar bears presented by Barbara & Eugen Poludniak, as well as Henri Dantès's lions (which belonged to the Bougliones); there were crocodiles presented by either Koringa or Karah-Kawak; sealions; chimps; Althoff's horses and elephants; and well-known international acts such as the Dior Sisters, The Merkys, the tightwireSee Tight Wire. dancer Katharina, the clown Pio Nock, the Marilee Flyers and many others, to which were added the spectacular production numbers on the hippodrome.

Franz Althoff Poster (c.1965)
The menagerie expanded, with the addition of a gorilla and an orangoutang in 1965. For the winter season in Brussel, which was produced in collaboration with Erie Klant, the show was retitled Hagenbeck's World Circus—a way to allude to the now-famous movie title associated with Althoff, Circus World. Yet, touring such a large circus as Althoff’s was becoming increasingly difficult, as it also was for many other European large shows. Furthermore, interest for Franz Althoff's show formula, which was becoming predictable, was also waning in his German and Benelux markets.

An Italian tour project was thwarted by Ferdinando and Enis Togni, whose huge show had an identical style—although with an Italian warmth and exuberance that Circus Franz Althoff may have lacked. Starting in 1961, the Tognis had been touring the Althoff territory in Germany and Benelux with their Circo Heros, subtitled Italienischer National Circus (Circo Heros became Circo Americano in Italy). If comparable in size to Franz Althoff’s, Circo Heros was a lighter and more compact operation to run; its main advantage was that the show was managed by a large, versatile and multitasking circus family that even provided a good part of the performing cast.

Furthermore, Althoff's famous name was not Franz’s exclusivity. If his brother Adolf had been traveling intermittently with a different and smaller Althoff circus, more damaging was the emergence of Circus Carl Althoff. It had been created by Carl Althoff (1912-1944) just before WWII and revived by his son Giovanni in 1964 (taking the title Californischer National Circus [sic] in 1965). This was a fake branch of the Althoff family: It had originated with Carl Altorff (1847-1918), and the surname Althoff had been adopted by his grandson, August Beno Carl, who became known as Carl Althoff.

Circus Carl Althoff had quickly reached considerable size and visited Germany's largest cities; it distinguished itself by its ever-growing collection of elephants and a massive menagerie. Regardless of Carl Althoff, the competition in Germany was enormous anyway: Circus Krone had regained its prewar preëminence, and Franz had to contend with a host of smaller, easier-to-run circuses of good quality such as Sarrasani, Barum, Hagenbeck and Busch-Roland, not to mention Circus Williams, run by his sister Carola.

After the post-war boon, the European circus outburst was dwindling to the sole survival of the fittest. In France and Italy, some circuses had tried to attract a larger audience by featuring singers or television personalities under their big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau). For the 1966 season, Franz tried to boost his ticket sales by hosting the ZDF Television quiz-show Den goldene Schuss (The Golden Shot), presented by the extremely popular singer and entertainer Lou van Burg; for his winter "festival" edition in Antwerp, Franz offered a dolphin show. But little could be done with the rising costs of railway transportation, the maintenance of an enormous menagerie and the salaries of hundreds of employees; on November 3, 1968, in Stuttgart Franz Althoff's Gröẞter Rennbahn-Circus Europas folded forever his futuristic big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau).

Life After the Circus

Back to his winter quarters at Maintal-Dornigheim, near Frankfurt, Franz faced the challenge of liquidating the assets of his giant circus: an immense rolling stock, some of the best trained (and largest) horse groups, dozens of exotics animals, a Noah's Ark-size menagerie and a herd of fourteen elephants. Some wagons and a horse group left for South America, bought by the Egred family. Elfi Althoff (Carl Althoff's sister) and her husband, Rudy Jacobi, purchased several other wagons for their newly born “Rudy Bros. U.S.A. Circus” (a short-lived show, which eventually settled in Austria and morphed into the Österreichischer National Circus). Four elephants went to France’s Cirque Amar, two others were purchased by the Gruss family (including Tuffy, who became Toffy), and the others went in engagement to various European circuses. Some wild cats were purchased by Trude Sarrasani in South America.

The 48-Horse Liberty Act (1967)
Franz and his children, Harry, Marianne and Franziska (b. 1947), were still well-off and remained in the circus business, exploiting their remaining animal acts. For the1969 season, they appeared at Blackpool’s Tower Circus. In the following winter 1970-71, Franz kept his usual winter engagement at Brussels’s Cirque Royal, adding pop music acts to his show. Meanwhile, Franz’s horse groups went to work in such circuses as Pinder in France, Toni Boltini in The Netherlands, Sarrasani and Barum in Germany.

Harry Althoff had become one of the finest horse trainers of his generation. He had been the magician behind the legendary forty-eight-horse liberty"Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip. group and every other arena presentation of the mighty Franz Althoff circus. He began a successful career with one of the Althoff liberty"Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip. acts and a new group of six elephants: First with Sarrasani, then, until the mid-1980s, at Circus Barum (which had become Barum-Siemoneit in 1972 and eventually purchased the animals). Then, Harry became director of Circus Knie's Kinderzoo in Rapperswil, then stage manager at Frankfurt's legendary Tigerpalast varieté(German, from the French: ''variété'') A German variety show whose acts are mostly circus acts, performed in a cabaret atmosphere. Very popular in Germany before WWII, Varieté shows have experienced a renaissance since the 1980s.. Harry Althoff passed away in 2008. His daughter, Gina, developed a successful foot-juggling act.

Of Franz's three children, only Marianne left circus life. Franziska married Amedeo Folco. The couple had a long and successful European career with their elephants and horses, which they later passed on to their talented daughter, Adriana. As for Franz Althoff himself, he remained active, booking the family acts, participating in business ventures, or helping in the training of his children's and grandchildren’s animal acts. He passed away on March 31, 1987 in his home in Hanau, near Frankfort, at age seventy-nine; his colleagues in the circus world praised his great charm and elegance, and his business integrity. His wife, Olga, survived him until 2003.


All the elder Althoff siblings, Franz, Carola and Adolf, left the circus scene at the end of the 1960s, marking the passing of a generation and its way of doing circus. Only Krone was left to continue the work of the old generation. The name Althoff soon spun out of control, with the appearance and disappearance of large and small apparently ubiquitous shows: All the family branches had indeed registered Franz's popularity and tried to fill the empty space. Circus Carl Althoff split into two units, one ran by Giovanni, the other, Circus Corty-Althoff, ran by his brother, Carl Althoff, Jr. Both were of considerable size and flourished until the late 1980s.

Adolf Althoff’s son, Franz Althoff, Jr. (known as Franzi, and born in 1943) rose to fame in the late 1970s. He first performed for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey with his father's tiger-on-horse act; he then created his own Circus Williams-Althoff in 1976 (after having bought the Williams title from his aunt, Carola Williams). Franzi was the perfect successor to his famous uncle: He had a passion for horses, he was very creative in the production as well as the technical fields (Williams-Althoff was the world's first circus to be transported in containers), and he developed international connections, keeping open the Althoff’s channel to Sweden's Circus Scott, and creating a long and successful collaboration with SoyuzGosTsirk and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, RosGosTsirk, to tour the "Moscow State Circus" in Germany.

Suggested Reading

  • Marlies Lehmann-Brune, Die Althoffs, Geschichte und Geschichten im die größte Circusdynastie der Welt (Frankfurt am Main, Umschau Verlag Breidenstein GmbH, 1991) – ISBN 3-524-69096-3
  • Henk van den Berg and Guido Ross, Die Unternehmen der Geschwister Althoff (Herlen, GIO Verlag, 2008)

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