Barry Band: Juggling some old circus memories with Blackpool stalwart
As Blackpool swings into its role as one of the six cities celebrating the 250th anniversary of circus in Britain, few participants can go back as far as Yuri Gridneff.
The 79-year-old director of the Blackpool Circus School recalls sitting at the ringside, as his parents starred in the 1940 summer season at the Tower Circus.
But it wasn’t the skills of the Seven Amazing Gridneffs that enthralled the toddler.
It was the water finale in which model ships were used to enact the Battle of the River Plate, between British cruisers and the German battleship Graf Spee.
The ships were guided from under-water by circus artists (the resident circusettes?).
“I sat and watched time and again. That’s how I can remember it,” says Yuri.
The story of the famous Amazing Gridneffs and of Yuri’s own career was told at a recent veterans’ coffee morning held by the Blackpool Museum project, for which Yuri and his wife Tonya are building a digital record.
But in following-up with an interview, Yuri and myself discovered we were both at Devonshire Road School at the same time.
I lived just down the road while Yuri was there for the summer of 1944, when the Amazing Gridneffs were in the Golden Jubilee season of the Tower Circus.
They did their unsupported ladder act as well as their horizontal bar act under the name Jix, Jax and Max.
The Gridneffs also had a trapeze act (Tower, 1941) an equestrian act and a juggling routine.
The family performers were Yuri’s parents, his father’s three brothers and two of the wives.
“My family left Russia soon after the Revolution and worked mainly in China.
“They first came to Blackpool in 1938 for the two-week Easter show at the Tower and did full seasons in 1940, 41 and 44,” said Yuri.
“They then joined Chipperfields’ Circus for five years and their last season together was in France in 1951.”
Yuri was trained as a juggler to join his parents, at the age of 14, in the Three Gridneffs variety act.
“I almost ruined it by breaking my right thumb in a boxing match. We lost an eight-week season with Moss Empires,” Yuri said.
“Jugglers usually have a good right hand and a not-as-good left hand, so my father made me practice with just my left hand which improved my skill.”
After four years touring the variety circuit, Yuri enlisted in the RAF before he was due to be called up for National Service. He was in the RAF Regiment and sent to Cyprus during the conflict.
He was in the honour guard of the Governor, Sir Hugh Foot, when the island was handed over to Archbishop Makarios.
Yuri met his future wife Antoinette (Toni) in 1955 when she was a dancer in a pantomime at Ryde, Isle of Wight, and saw her in a show in Skegness, a year later.
They were married in 1961 and appeared in variety and summer season as Yuri Gridneff and Toni, with Yuri featured on a unicycle, juggling rings and fire torches as well as balancing on the unsupported ladder.
They worked every kind of venue and came to Blackpool on the opening bill at the Horseshoe, with Tessie O’Shea in 1963, and a week at the old Queen’s Theatre in 1964, with Anne Shelton.
In 1965, the epic film Dr Zhivago was released with Omar Sharif as Yuri and Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya.
So Yuri and Tina became Yuri and Tonya and that’s how they are still known!
They settled on the Fylde Coast in 1981 and two years later were in the opening season in the cabaret room at the Sandcastle.
After a season at Butlin’s, Ayr, in 1990, they concentrated on school visits with demos and tuition.
Several pupils have gone into circus careers, notably Max Salthouse, a former pupil of Chaucer School, Fleetwood, who is ringmaster of Planet Circus.
Circus school pupils can be seen performing in some of the Fylde summer club days and galas.
The Blackpool Circus School is a Community Interest Company. They have circus training sessions at Highfield Academy, South Shore, and from June 1 to 3 will be taking part in the Circus Days event in the Houndshill shopping centre. Details can be seen by Googling Blackpool Circus School.
Yuri’s memories include his 16th birthday meeting with American singing star Guy Mitchell at Dudley Hippodrome in 1954 and the singer spoke to him in Russian.
In 1956, American singer Mel Torme refused to sign autographs at The Ardwick Hippodrome.
In the 1970s Joe Brown gave up the Number One dressing room at the Bristol Hippodrome, so that Yuri and Tonya didn’t have to carry their pram upstairs.