Elephants have long been used in a variety of ways, from Hannibal employing them during the Second Punic War, to providing the model for the main character of the children’s book Babar, or symbolizing the Republican Party. However, especially in Western culture, elephants are perhaps best known for their roles in zoos and circuses.
So there was some excitement that for three days in 1951, a trio of elephants would perform in a traveling circus in Fargo. In fact, these elephants had already attained some fame—they were movie stars! The animals had been used for about seven years in movies produced by MGM studios, appearing mostly in Tarzan pictures. But in 1946, the studio abandoned Tarzan movies and the elephants were almost out of a job—so Frank Whitbeck, a studio official at MGM, bought them.
In 1947, Whitbeck, along with two wild animal trainers, incorporated a business called “Elephants, Inc,” the first corporation ever formed in the US to deal exclusively with elephants, with a purpose of buying, selling, training, and leasing elephants. The three elephants, better known as Sally, Queenie and Happy, the “Three girls from Hollywood,” were listed as assets, and they were already traveling the Midwest as part of the Polack Brothers’ Circus.
This movie-star history may have made the elephants even more exciting to the youth expecting to go. Especially so for a faction in Fargo. For on this date, the Fargo businessmen and the El Zagal Shrine temple hosted 150 Fargo Forum carriers and salesmen at the matinee performance.
Of course, the conditions elephants live and work in have been a point of much contention over the years. But it is noteworthy that the Polack Brothers’ elephant trainer, James (Slivers) and his wife Jo Madison said, “As most humans respect authority, so does an elephant.” He also said he didn’t use bull hooks on the elephants, asserting: “It is cruel and unnecessary. Neither is it necessary to yell at them. I’ve learned that if you speak quietly and firmly and merely use a leather thong to cue them, you get quicker results and more respect from them.”
One must suppose that nobody carried water for the Three girls from Hollywood, though, as just one adult elephant can drink approximately 60 gallons of water a day. It would be easier to bring the elephant to the water!
Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker
The Fargo Forum, morning edition, July 13, 1951, p10
May 10, 1947, “The Billboard,” Vol. 59, No. 18, p50