By John Rice
'The Day the Circus Didn't Come to Town" is the working title of a documentary film being made by Chuck Williams to observe the 100th anniversary of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train wreck, which took place on June 22, 1918. Chuck lives in Hammond, Indiana, where the wreck occurred. The victims are buried in Showmen's Rest at Woodlawn Cemetery here in Forest Park. That plot belongs to the Showmen's League of America, and Chuck will be filming their remembrance ceremony at the cemetery on May 17.
Chuck also filmed an interview with me in April. An ex-employee of Woodlawn recommended me as someone who had knowledge of the train wreck and Showmen's Rest. Most of my knowledge comes from a book titled, No Performances Today by Walter A. Reeder Jr. I over-prepared for the interview by re-reading the book and taking copious notes.
When we were looking for a place to film, Augie Aleksy graciously allowed us to use his store, Centuries & Sleuths on Madison Street. Augie even came in on his day off! I figured having a bunch of books behind me would make me look smarter. Chuck had me sit in a high-backed chair and set up two cameras to capture the interview. I talked about Showmen's Rest and was all set to launch into an account of the train wreck. But Chuck had already filmed an expert on that subject.
He traveled all the way to Beaver Crossing, Nebraska to interview Richard Lytle, author of The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918. He also visited Peru, Indiana, the former winter quarters of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. It is now the home of the International Circus Hall of Fame. The town celebrates Circus Week, featuring performances and a parade by local school kids. Chuck filmed the festivities and interviewed performers.
He was not as fortunate in filming at the crash site. The railroads refused him permission, so he will have to film from property owned by the City of Gary. The Showmen's League of America, though, has been nothing but gracious in helping Chuck complete the film. They have given him unprecedented access and he will film an interview with its president, Guy Levitt, at the May 17 event. They are also allowing him to conduct a study to disprove that Showmen's Rest is haunted. They will record at Brookfield Zoo and the cemetery simultaneously to demonstrate the source of animal noises at Showmen's Rest.
Chuck also interviewed Mayor Calderone about International Clown Week celebrations at Woodlawn. This tradition has been discontinued by the new owners of the cemetery, Service Corporation International (SCI). In my interview, I criticized this decision. Some believe that holding a celebration featuring circus performers is disrespectful to the victims. I can't think of anything more fitting.
SCI also had a list of requirements that Chuck had to fulfill to film at Woodlawn. They will not permit the public to attend a wreath-laying ceremony Chuck has planned for the 100th anniversary, for insurance reasons. Nevertheless, Mayor Calderone and Mayor Greer, of Peru, will attend the ceremony. There will also be a pastor from Christian Fellowship Church in Hammond, the church Walter Reeder Jr. attending.
I purchased Reeder's book in 2006, and it has been an invaluable source of information and images about the train wreck and Showmen's Rest. Now, thanks to Chuck, we'll have a documentary to describe the tragic events. If you would like to view footage of the interviews Chuck has completed, you can find them on the Facebook page for "The Day the Circus Didn't Come to Town." I'm the guy with all the books behind me.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com