Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Juggling Colleen

Everyone has heard the old saying about running away to join the circus… except, no one expects it to apply in their own family, and especially not in MY own family! But, that's pretty much what Elizabeth Wynne, a.k.a. Veronica Martell, did and she was my mother's second cousin.

It certainly wasn't something that was in her blood – at least not on her Wynne side. Her father, James Wynne, was an electrician. Her grandfather, also James Wynne, was a brush maker. And her great-grandfather, John Wynne, who was my great-great-grandfather, worked as a shop assistant. They were all ordinary people, living ordinary lives in their native Dublin city. So, how did they produce such an extraordinary, and talented, daughter?

Actually, Elizabeth had three younger sisters who also learned to juggle and followed her onto the stage. They all moved to London and trained with Jack Martell, the husband of their Aunt Moira. But, it was the eldest, Elizabeth, or should I say Veronica, who enjoyed the most success, or at any rate achieved the most mentions in the online sources available today. 

Like her sisters, Veronica initially worked the variety halls and cabarets in Britain and on the Continent. Her big break came in 1951 when John Ringling North, of the famous Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, spotted her at the China Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. Even though she had no circus background, he was so impressed with her act, he signed her up and Veronica joined the circus.[1] Her arrival was heralded in the New York newspapers that year, for example, in Brooklyn they said: 
‘Veronica Martell, a real beauty from Ireland, turned out to be a top-notch juggler, climaxing her act with a blindfold routine that seemed impossible, but the lady did it’.[2]

That season, Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Greatest Show on Earth, a romantic drama set in the Ringling Circus. Veronica played a small part, as herself, the Juggling Colleen.  They, somewhat surprisingly, scooped the 1952 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Story, competing against such movie giants as The Quiet Man and the western, High Noon.

Despite its Oscars, I don't think I've ever seen the movie. According to online sources, Veronica opened a short montage featuring an assortment of circus acts. She performed as ‘Ireland's Juggling Marvel’ to the old nationalist tune ‘The Wearing of the Green’.[3] There are some clips of the movie on You-Tube, here, but, unfortunately, Veronica doesn't appear in any of them.     

Elizabeth (Veronica) made her home in the United States. She met her husband, Robert Ziemski, while at the Ringling Circus in 1951 and they married the following year.  After their daughter was born in 1953, Veronica returned to the stage and in 1964, she appeared in a short Harold Baim documentary called Jugglers and Acrobats.[4] Some pictures of Veronica from the film are available here

More photographs of her, when she performed with the Ringling Circus, are available in the digital collections of the Milner Library at the Illinois State University, here.  I can see the Wynne family resemblance, especially to one of my glamorous aunts. Does anyone else see it too? (I cannot show the pictures due to copyright restrictions, but hopefully the links will work ok)

Veronica didn't have all the fun and her sisters enjoyed their share of the lime-light too.

Des O'Reilly, a drummer with an English pop band called The Puppets, remembers Christine Wynne, a.k.a. Christine Martell. In 1965, they did a three-month tour of Cyprus, North Africa and Malta for the British Forces. Christine played a stereotypical, drunken, Irish lass, juggling to the tune of ‘The Teddy Bears Picnic’. According to Des O'Reilly, she continually dropped the balls, such that they had to start and restart ‘Teddy Bears Picnic’ over and over again and he said ‘poor Christine, in her thick Irish brogue, would chastise herself for dropping her props!!’ He was thankful she wasn't a knife thrower, but it sounds like just a comedy act to me.[5] 

Moira Martell, born Mary Pauline Wynne in 1931, performed as the continental juggler, while Rita Martell, born Margaret Jane Wynne in 1934, became known as the youthful juggler. They also worked the variety circuits across Europe. All four sisters seemingly employed the same basic techniques in their acts. The programme for one of Rita's performances, in the Grand Festival of Magic show at the Scala Theatre, London, in 1954, reads:  
‘she has a brilliant act’ and ‘worked numerous routines with clubs, balls, hats, etc., and finally did the fountain of bouncing six balls whilst blindfolded!’[6] 

Sadly, the Martell Sisters have all passed away now. Veronica only died in February this year. Her obituary can be read here 

[1] The Billboard, 21 Apr 1951, p. 57, accessed on Google books.
[2] Brooklyn Eagle, 5 April 1951, p. 4, accessed on Fulton Postcards.
[3] ‘Many Acts’, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Circusmusic
[4] The Baim Collection.
[5] Des (A Musical Life).
[6] The Magic Circle presents a Grand Festival of Magic, Scala Theatre, October 4th to 9th, 1954: Programme
Image: Pixabay 

See also, the first episode of this story Showbiz!

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. That's a unique story! Thanks for sharing.

  2. The things you discover tracing your family tree! Amazing.

  3. You have some very cool ancestors!

  4. Thank you all, You are right, Ellie, you never know what you might find next!

  5. Small world - a neighbor of ours asked if we ever heard of a circus performer, Veronica Martell. Well, we're a circus family and I said of course and went about telling the neighbor all about Veronica. After the story the neighbor said that Veronica was a friend of hers and lives in the next town. This is NEW YORK early 1980s. I thought it was a gag. Well, Veronica visited my circus several times and always received a huge welcome backstage from the performers who were all well aware of her from her appearance in the Academy Award Winning Motion Picture THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. We had Veronica over to our home several times for some tea and gossip. Small wworld.


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