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'It was a big deal': fond memories of seaside circus in the '70s and '80s

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Elephants bathing at a main beach, huge crowds and a riptide escape were all part of the parcel when some of Australia’s oldest travelling circuses set up show in the heart of Caloundra.

Long-term locals will recall the days that Ashton Circus and Perry Bros Circus pitched their giant tents on the sparse foreshore at Happy Valley.

Those involved in the shows have fond memories.

Tammy Lopez recalled her family, the Ashtons, performing there during the 1970s.

“We were basically right on the beach,” she said.

“It was the full circus with all the animals and the acts. We had elephants, lions, probably monkeys, horses.

“The elephants would often go down to the beach and bathe there.”

An Ashton’s Circus float on the bank in 1977. Picture: Picture: Sunshine Coast.

There was a vast sand spit at Happy Valley during the 1970s before it essentially disappeared for decades, only to re-emerge during the past year.

The circus tent wasn’t pitched on the sand, due to instability, but it was right next to the sand and water on high tide.

It was in prime position in Caloundra.

“We’d just pitch the tent there,” Ms Lopez said.

“But no one can get that close to the pick of the town now, so it was a real pleasure to show there.”

Ms Lopez, the granddaughter of circus owners Douglas and Phyllis Ashton, was young then but she was kept busy.

An elephant from the visiting circus promotes a Jumbo Sale in the Caloundra Four Square Store in 1964. Picture: Picture Sunshine Coast

“I would do school during the day and would also perform.

“It was paradise there, for the circus family kids, because the beach was right there. You could open your door and step on to it. It was magic.

“But I do remember the surf side (of Happy Valley) was too rough for us.”

She recalled many people fishing off the spit, and the towering pine trees on the foreshore.

“I haven’t been to Caloundra for years, but I remember it was a lovely spot for the circus to come to in the ’60s and ’70s.”

The circus also showed at Kawana.

A giraffe from Ashton Circus was one of a number of animals relocated from the circus to Seal Park in 1970. Picture: Picture Sunshine Coast.

Ms Lopez said the locals loved watching their shows.

“It was a big deal when a circus came through town,” she said.

Tony Maynard’s family owned and operated Perry Bros Circus in the same spot during the early 1980s.

“We set up right along the waterfront,” he said.

“There was basically a bit of bushland and some dunes, and it wasn’t developed in Caloundra like it is now.

“We had our elephants and everything, and sometimes we’d let them go for a swim.

“We would show there for a week, generally in school holidays, and we would get really good crowds: it was very popular.

“It was always great there. We could go fishing after the performances and catch stingrays.”

Mr Maynard was only in his early teens but was heavily involved in his grandparents’ circus.

He performed on the trampoline and tightrope and helped train the elephants.

“They were fun times … simple times. I was happy to live it,” he said.

“Everything was laid-back.”

Some of Happy Valley, including the large sand spit, in 1962. Picture: Picture Sunshine Coast

He said there was even a clothing-optional beach nearby, which caught him by surprise when he scampered over a dune.

A strong nearby rip also caught him by surprise.

“A friend and I went swimming and all of a sudden, within an instant, we were 20m to 30m offshore,” he said.

“The rip took us straight out.

“We just swam and swam and swam and we were panicking badly.

“We barely got back in and by the time we did we were exhausted.

“It was scary but, in the end, we survived to live another day.”

Looking across the Caloundra Bar to modern Happy Valley and its large sand spit and nearby high-rises. Picture: CADE Media

Ashton Circus and Perry Bros Circus are essentially no more, but family members continued their legacy.

Tammy’s parents ran Lorraine Ashton’s Classic Circus during the 1980s. Cousin Chantelle runs Ashton Entertainment, which recently showed at Dreamworld, while cousin Joseph runs Infamous the Show, which has performed on the Sunshine Coast and is currently in Florida.

Perry Bros Circus closed about a decade ago after Mr Maynard’s parents ran it, but he continued the tradition and opened Eroni’s Circus.

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