By Dominique Jando
The Cirque Léonce was created in 1907 (and originally called Cirque Printania) by Léonce Chapuis, a circus enthusiast from a well-to-do French provincial family, who left his sedentary life to follow a circus—the well-known and highly reputable Cirque Bureau, one of France’s oldest traveling circuses (active from c.1855 to 1953). There, he worked in the circus office as jack-of-all-trades: Someone with a education was enough of a rarity in the traveling circus world to be useful in a large range of administrative chores.
While at Cirque Bureau, Léonce trained as an acrobat on horseback, the dream he had for himself as a circus artist. Unfortunately, he broke a leg in a bad fall, and his dream came to a vanishing point. He left the circus and became a journalist, and then, probably missing show business and touring, he went on to work with the "Tournées Baret," a famous theatrical touring company. But this was not the circus.
When his road crossed that of the popular Cirque Pinder (then still under the management of Arthur Pinder), Léonce asked for a job, and was hired as —in the old French circus, a job whose fuzzy description embraced the duties of performance director, artistic administrator, stage manager, and probably, in Léonce’s case, anything that required a minimum of academic education.
Léonce met his wife, who worked as a “clairvoyant” in a magician act, at the Cirque Pinder. Soon after their wedding, they decided to go into circus business on their own. Thus in 1907, Léonce Chapuis opened his first circus, the Cirque Printania. Unfortunately, if Léonce had acquired by then a good knowledge of the general administration of a circus, he didn’t have any experience in the actual day-to-day operational management of a traveling circus—a job that often required more survival skills and cunning than traditional business savvy.
From Cirque Printania to Cirque LéonceUnfortunately, the clairvoyant Mrs. Chapuis couldn’t foresee that in 1911, after only four years of existence, the Cirque Printania would be bankrupt and put for sale. Léonce managed to keep his horses, though, and he went to work as an equestrian for other circuses, presenting horses at and acts. But luck struck with a significant inheritance, and with that money and the money he had put aside as an artist, he was able to start a new circus to which he gave his name, the Cirque Léonce.
In the period between the two World Wars, the Cirque Léonce toured the French provinces with good success (Léonce Chapuis had learned his lessons), and in time, it acquired a very good reputation. It was by no means a large enterprise—and it didn’t have any ambition to be so—but it presented programs of quality, and the public knew it. Léonce avoided superlatives and bluff in his advertising, a fact his faithful audiences appreciated. This probity, however, may have also been detrimental to his business, at a time when the traveling circus competition had become fierce.
The Cirque Léonce gradually vanished from the scene: The tenting circus was replaced by occasional appearances of the Cirque Léonce in seasonal fairs, playing under a temporary . And then, it disappeared altogether; no precise date of its last performance has been recorded. The Cirque Léonce had been one of a wonderful group of high-quality, medium-size circuses that roamed the French provinces, entertaining a faithful audience, until the end of the Second World War.
- Adrian, Sur les Chemins des Grands Cirques Voyageurs (Bourg-la-Reine, Paul Adrian Edit., 1959)