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Tom Cooper

He Brings Carnival and Circus Art To Life
Article and photo by Joye Redield
Pierce County Herald
August 30, 1983

The horses were everywhere inanimate wooden mounts stood on revolving pedestals all about the aluminum framed building. Some were worn and cracked, others had a fresh undercoat of paint and still others gleamed in the bright morning sunlight.

Cooper There were carousel horses - bound for the Puyallup Fair and dedication this Thursday - in various stages of repair. Circus artist Tom Cooper supervised restoration of the 42 horses here, their having glided around the Philadelphia Tobbogan No. 43 portable carousel since 1917 and at the Puyallup Fair for almost as long.

The restoration job is reminiscent of the traditional fold art of fairs, carousels and carnival midways.

And, it is an art Tom Cooper has lived. Cooper started with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1958 at their headquarters in Sarasota, Fla. when he "painted completely, all the trains, prop wagons and other wagons with the Ringling logo and emblem, 'The Greatest Show on Earth.' "

"It's mainly wintertime work," he said of the painting. "During the summer from 1973 to 1976, I traveled with them on the red unit occasionally painting, but mostly working in concessions."

"I'm basically an organizer," Cooper modestly said, "I bring the people in, hire the local help - students on holiday in Florida - to help paint these things. Trouble is, all good painters have a tendency to gawk at all the girls on the beach."

"They call themselves the Pabst Blue Ribbon Boys," he said. "That's because they would cut off the tops and mix the paint." PBR Show Signs is the name of his new company, named in referent to the circus days.

Not only did he paint midway signs, show facades and circus wagons and trailers, he also painted portraits in his younger days. His work went without credits in the show program but at the time it mattered little to Cooper. He was a part of the circus family; they were his family.

Clowns like Billy Valentine and Emmett Kelly are the faces he worked with, and the faces he painted on the House of Glass at the Western Washington Fairgrounds. Cooper worked as a clown himself but plays down his role, preferring to laud the others who had an integral part in the Greatest Show's success.

Along the way he met his wife, aerialist Patricia Thawley. She was a dancer from London, brought over to the new world as part of an act in the Clyde Beatty Circus of Long Island.

"We heard they brought over these English broads, they were called the Digger Pughs Girls, and we were married by the end of the season," Cooper said.

In 1973, he began designing artwork to adorn the Ringling red unit train. But his sketches and work were taken to an outfit that made decals, spelling the end for the need of a circus painter. Although Cooper protested the move and his sketches were not used in the redesign, by 1976 he knew it was time to move on.

Since then he has traveled with Pat across the U.S. and Canada in their motor home to where there are amusement parks needing a facelift or show semi-trucks that need painting. The facade used in a show by Royal Lipizzan Stallions in Venice, Fla., was painted by him as was the facade of the "Ripley's Believe It or Not" Museum in Ocean City, MD.

This is not the first carousel on which Cooper has worked. He and wife refurbished two Park antique carousels. Horses for those carousels were carved by prisoners at federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan.

Cooper is careful with his horses. Each is inspected under bright light for cracks, breaks and missing dowels. Minor cracks are sanded and filled with epoxy cement.

The animals were originally carved from solid pieces of wood laminated together. A common break occurs where children step on the hind leg to climb on the horse. These broken pieces are gingerly pried apart and new dowels are inserted or repaired with carpenter's glue.

Colorful rhinestones, serving as eyes and adorning the hand carved tack are protected with putty during repairs.

Once sanded and inspected the horses are coated with white primer paint applied with an air compressor. None of the horses was dipped in paint. Dipping causes the laminated pieces of the animals to fall apart, Cooper said.

Fourteen sweeps on the merry-go-round are comprised of three horses each. There will be six each of blacks, whites, palominos, arabians, spotted grays, appaloosas and pintos.

Work Shop at The Oaks

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