William Woodcock, Jr.
By Dominique Jando
William H. Woodcock (1904-1963), was a first-generation circus man (and became a legendary elephant trainer with a passion for circus history), his mother was Sarah "Babe" Orton (1902-1988), whose grandfather, Hiram, a former sailor and tavern-keeper of British origin, had started a circus in Wisconsin in 1854. As the feisty Babe would often say, "My family was in the circus when the Ringling brothers were still wearing wooden shoes."
William Woodcock, Jr. (1935-2023), better known as Bill or "Buckles" Woodcock, was one of the great elephant trainers of the second half of the twentieth century American circus. A true circus legend in his own times, he was extremely respected in the profession and loved by circus fans, who enjoyed testing his historical knowledge of the American circus, and his encyclopedic command of the history of elephants in the United States—an interest passed on to him by his father.
Bill (to differentiate him from his father, William) Woodcock grew up around animals, elephants in particular. When he was a toddler, he was often buckled to his mother on a harness to keep him in check and safe around his father's elephants, thus his nickname. At age 11, he began working in the circus as a candy butcher(American) Concession vendor; so named because one of the first successful concessionaires of the American circus was a former butcher.. But Buckles had other plans: in 1951, over his father's objections, he found a job as an animal handler with another elephant trainer, Eugene "Arky" Scott, who worked with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Obviously, there was not much William Senior could do. He and Buckles reunited two years later and began working together. Since his father's vision was failing, Buckles's role in the partnership became increasingly more prominent. In 1951, William Woodcock had acquired a four-year old Burmese woodland elephant, Anna May, from the Al G. Kelly-Miller Bros. Circus, and Buckles began working with her. Anna May, who was a remarkably smart and talented performer, would become America's most famous elephant and stay in the Woodcock family until May 2004, when she went into retirement at Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Greenbrier, Arkansas. She died there that same year, on December 21. Anna May appeared several times on national television, including The Ed Sullivan Show, You Asked For It!, The Merv Griffin Show, Circus Of The Stars, Hollywood Palace, and Pick Of The Night. She can also be seen in the film The Big Circus (1955), starring Victor Mature.
The Woodcock Family
Buckles Woodcock married aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc. and leopard trainer Barbara Ray (born September 30, 1934), whose parents, LaLea and Ruben Ray, had a tiny circus called Marlowe's Mighty Hippodrome. Her contribution to Buckles's elephant acts quickly became apparent, as her flamboyant personality brought razzle-dazzle to Buckles's familiar performing style—always quiet and subdued, giving the spotlight to his charges instead of himself. Barbara also helped in costuming and choreographing some of their presentations.Rex Williams. She and Buckles had two children, Shannon and Delilah. All of the children have participated at one time or another in the Woodcocks' elephant acts. The entire family was in the ring together in 1978, when Buckles starred with a group of twenty-two elephants—including Anna May, who performed with Ben Williams—in the 108th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show On Earth.
Buckles Woodcock has presented his elephants in practically every major American circus. For eighteen years, from 1982 through 2000, his acts were featured every season at the Big Apple Circus, presented either by himself, his wife, or his stepson Ben Williams, sometimes with younger family members participating as well. Some of these acts were created especially for particular productions of the Big Apple Circus.
Following his retirement in 2004, Buckles Woodcock devoted his time to his other passion, circus history, through his popular website, Buckles Blog. One of the foremost elephant authorities in the U.S., he has carried on the work of his father, who had started building a meticulous and comprehensive record of every elephant that had set foot in America.
His father told Buckles that an elephant trainer should have "a strong back, a weak mind, and a savage disposition" to succeed in the trade. Neither father nor son actually fitted this description. A calm, patient, and quiet trainer, Buckles Woodcock was able to handle any elephant, whatever its temperament—even elephants that other trainers had discarded for being too "difficult." He also trained several male elephants, which are generally considered too problematic to be presented in the ring. Buckles Woodcock was indeed a worthy heir to his celebrated father—and undoubtedly one of the greatest elephant trainers of his generation.
Barbara Woodcock passed away on August 17, 2020, and Bill followed her three years later, on March 1, 2023. In 1995, Buckles Woodcock had been inducted into the International Circus Hall Of Fame in Peru, Indiana, and into the Circus Ring of Fame at St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, Florida in 1997. Bill and Barbara have been laid to rest at Mount Olivet Cemetery, in Hugo, Oklahoma, alongside the remains of their star elephant, Anna May.
- Video: Bill & Barbara Woodcock with Baby Opal on The Ed Sullivan Show (1965)
- Video: Bill Woodcock and Peggy in "The Barber Shop," with Denis Lacombe in the Big Apple Circus production of Carnival & Mardi Gras (1986)
- Video: David Dimitri & Marie-Pierre Bénac, Pas-de-deux on elephants in the Big Apple Circus production of 1001 Arabian Nights (1987)
- Video: Bill Woodcock's Elephants, Anna May and Ned, in the Big Apple Circus production of The Big Apple Circus Meets the Monkey King (1988).
- Video: Bill Woodcock's Elephants, Anna May and Ned, presented by Ben Williams in the Big Apple Circus production of Ballerinas, Horses and Clowns... (1990).
- Video: Bill Woodcock, Peggy and Anna May, with Vanessa Thomas in the Big Apple Circus production of Greetings From Coney Island (1991)
- Video: Bill Woodcock, Peggy and Anna May, with Vanessa Thomas in the Big Apple Circus production of Goin' Places (1992)
- Video: Bill Woodcock, Peggy and Anna May, with the Big Apple Circus Company in the Big Apple Circus production of The Medicine Show (1996)
- Video: Bill Woodcock, with Anna Nay, Ned and Amy, and Melinda Merlier in the Big Apple Circus production of The Medicine Show (1996)
- Video: Bill Woodcock with Anna May, Ned and Amy, and Bello Nock and the Big Apple Circus Company in the Big Apple Circus production of Twenty Years! (1997)
- Video: Bill Woodcock with Anna May, Ned, and Amy, and Bello Nock and the Big Apple Circus Comppany in the Big Apple Circus production of Happy On! (1998)
- Video: Bill Woodcock and Amy, with Bello Nock, in the Big Apple Circus production of Bello & Friends (1999)
- Video: Bill Woodcock's Elephants, in the Big Apple Circus production of Bello & Friends (1999)