Ben Hecht's circus and carnival scripts include "Trapeze" starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida; "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (Tony Randall) and "Jumbo" starring Doris Day and Jimmy Durante." Left, Doris Day photograph from "Jumbo," courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs, New York Sun Collection.
When Academy Award winning filmwriter Ben Hecht reminisced in his memoir A CHILD OF THE CENTURY about Castello's round barn where he learned trapeze gymnastics from his landlady's son Harry, readers assumed the barn was in back of the house. But the barn was really in front of the house, across the street and overlooking Lake Michigan at 827 Lake Avenue. This was the first house owned by the Hechts' equestrian landlady, Frances Castello. Her spouse, circus master Dan Castello, a partner of P.T. Barnum, was the first to piggy-back circus cars on trains to the West Coast after the completion of the trans-continental railroad, tithing to Brigham Young in his passage through Utah. His performance for Queen Victoria in London was lauded in a brochure by Charles Dickens.
But when Dan Castello wanted to sell the house to locate their circus menagerie more conveniently next to the railroad tracks, Frances refused to part with her beautiful mansard roofed home on the lake: They quarreled. Dan left with his coach and driver, infuriated, never to return to Racine.
Without each other the circus pair became, as sociologists would say, downwardly mobile. Dan hired out as a horse trainer in a small Illinois circus. Frances Castello eventually had to sell the house to build income property across the street. THAT is the house where young Ben Hecht, his parents, Sarah and Joseph Hecht, and his brother Peter lived during Ben's junior high and high school years: in Frances Castelllo's rooming house for retired circus people at 838 Lake Avenue. She did not however, sell the barn.
Whenever Ben crossed the street to play in the octagonal barn, to work out on the trapeze, to make horse-radish to sell to neighbors, to pick wild cucumbers on the lake bank or to put on magic lantern shows in the barn, he was at 827 Lake Avenue, whose house remains standing. He saw it from his attic bedroom window when he looked out to see the many moods of "the great sea Lake Michigan." He referred to the barn as one of the "five Hills of my youth."
The barn was torn down in the early 1920s, after Hecht had become a celebrity journalist, short story writer, playwright and novelist in Chicago. The destruction of the barn at 827 Lake Avenue seemed to tear at Hecht's heartstrings, ushering from him a stream of writings about the circus and carnival people he knew well in his Lake Avenue boyhood. These works for stage, screen and book reading combined sentiment, melodrama and savvy about people of the big-top and little-top. His circus and carnival scripts include "Trapeze" starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida; "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (Tony Randall) and "Jumbo" starring Doris Day and Jimmy Durante. Remember Durante's famous line 'what elephant?' when caught redhanded leading the beast away? Fair to say no major circus film of Hollywood was produced in Hecht's tenure there without consulting him, the writer who learned about circus life on Lake Avenue in Racine.
In his memoir, "A Child of the Century," Hecht remembered the barn and his mentor Harry Castello, the downward skidding son of Frances and Dan. Harry was a circus acrobat and a boatmaker who imbued in young Ben Hecht the diverse abilities to build and sail a boat and to take risks as a trapeze acrobat, activities that became Hecht's metaphors for coming of age. Hecht honored Harry in a story he wrote for the Reader's Digest feature, "The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met."
Because the house where the Hecht family lived was demolished in the 1964, the older, one-family Castello house across the street at 827 Lake Avenue remains the only house on the block with meaning to Ben in his youth and one of few of his Racine haunts still in use. Despite changes his sailing buddy Charles Lockwood later made to the house when he owned it, Hecht would recognize it as the Castello house at 827 Lake Avenue, the site of the circus barn he numbered among the "Five Hills" of his youth. Later the house became a mustering point for the Virgil Whyte "all-girl" USO swing band, which toured 1500 homefront bases in World War II. The band's collections are now at the Smithsonian, but that is another story, albeit one that Hecht knew.
Today where Dan Castello's barn stood, a preschoolers' play yard becomes animated from time to time every day, an apt legacy of young Ben Hecht's ephemeral fun at the barn.
Hecht left Racine to begin a dazzling writing career in Chicago as the youngest and most creative member of the Midwestern Literary Renaissance. He later became Hollywood's highest paid writer and won two Oscars (Underworld and The Scoundrel). Racinians and Wisconsonians with a bent for history can remember with pride that this world renowned writer learned to write at the old Racine High School. He is ensconced today as a Notable Wisconsin Writer by the Wisconsin Library Association.
"I remember a lad in Racine" -- words easy to say about one's childhood home. But look where Hecht placed that memory-- the words were among his last ones in his memoir, A Child of the Century.
Left, the Dan Castello octagonal circus barn of Hecht's boyhood.
FILMOGRAPHY OF BEN HECHT CIRCUS STORIES
The Great Gabbo (silent), Erich von Stroheim and Betty Compson star. 1929.
Billy Rose's Jumbo: (at the New York Hippodrome) Jimmie Durante. 1935.
At the Circus (aka Marx Brothers at the Circus) 1939.
Ride the Pink Horse (UI) noir film named for scene on antique carousel. 1947.
Trapeze: (HL film) Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollabrigida, Tony Curtis. 1956.
Billy Rose's Jumbo: (MGM film), Jimmie Durante, Doris Day, Martha Raye. 1962. "What elephant?" said Durante as he was caught leading Jumbo away.
The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (Warner) co-writer Charles Lederer. Tony Randall, Barbara Eden 1964. Circus fantasy. Randall plays seven characters. George Pal director.
Circus World, in UK Magnificent Showman (Paramount film) Rita Hayworth, Claudia Cardinale, John Wayne. 1964.
*The Great Magoo, (play) co-writer Gene Fowler based on their book, about workers at New York's Coney Island amusement park. 1934.