Bex Bros. Circus returns after 25-year hiatus

Posted Dec. 09, 2011, at 11:19 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 09, 2011, at 5:32 p.m.

A lady in yellow struts to the bouncy tune of a steam calliope. Three elephants wearing Stetsons trail behind her as she marches past yawning lions and bumbling clowns. After lying dormant for 25 years, the acrobats are ready to fly. They’re all headed for the Big Top. Ladies and gentlemen, enter the Bex Bros. Circus — and meet the ringmaster, Capt. Les Bex of Camden.

Bex, former owner of the Maine Windjammer Cruises, began constructing circus figures when he was 8 years old. Over several decades, his model has grown into a spectacular scene.

“Sometimes, once you get started on something, it just seems to keep on going,” said Bex, now 74, as he nervously watched Penobscot Marine Museum curator Ben Fuller climb a ladder near his erected model on Tuesday. Fuller was pinning up circus posters in the museum’s Main Street Gallery, readying the space for the new exhibit, “The Circus Comes to Town.”

The Searsport gallery is typically empty during the winter, but this year it will come alive with circus memorabilia, historic photographs and circus art by Maine artists Alan Fishman, Nancy Morgan-Barnes and the late Waldo Peirce. The focal point is Bex’s masterpiece, last displayed in Camden in the 1970s.

As a boy, Bex would eagerly watch the circus come to his small town outside Chicago. Along with other local children, he’d help the companies unpack freight cars and erect tents for a free ticket to the show.

“This was back when there was no TV. It was the occasion of the summer,” said Bex, smiling. “I was a performer once. One performer called me out into the act and asked me to hold a long slip of paper. He took his bullwhip and snapped the paper out of my hands.”

One trapeze artist, in particular, launched him into model making. His act was performed on a rope tied to a rising hot air balloon, and in a spectacular finale he parachuted to the ground.

“I thought that was about the greatest thing ever,” said Bex. “When I got home, I started creating my own balloon ascension model.”

No one in his family practiced model building, but there was a shop in town where Bex would loiter and examine the work of a master model builder. And it was his uncle who handed him a ruler and taught him to build everything to a ⅜-inch scale (a fairly uncommon scale in model building).

The circus on display at the gallery includes wagons that Bex made when he was just 12 years old.

“I wasn’t shy about talking with the people in the circus,” he said.

Many of the figurines in the Bex Bros. Circus are people that he actually met or watched perform, and every miniature side-show poster was replicated from actual posters from the 1920s to 1960s.

“I always had a feeling for the fly and return act,” Bex said. “When I was a junior in high school they wanted me to go with them to be a flyer, but I turned out to be 200 pounds.”

Instead, he became a mechanical engineer and designed everything from industrial knitting machines to refrigerated ice cream trucks to missiles.

His engineering career ended when he fell in love with sailing while aboard a Maine windjammer Mary Day with Capt. Havilah “Buds” Hawkins one summer. He became the ship’s mate and worked for several years before deciding to buy his own fleet in 1969. Moving to Camden, he become owner of the Green Fleet — the Mattie, Mercantile and Mistress — and captained cruises for more than a decade. Today, he captains powerboat day cruises from Camden to Rockport.

The only thing that connects the circus to sailing for Bex is the rope, pulleys and the simple machinery that makes everything possible in both worlds. Between sailing trips, he’d often sit on the dock in Camden, whittling elephants.

“Try to find the color for an elephant — there is none,” said Fuller, weighing a blue-grey elephant in his hand. “It’s whatever dirt they’ve been around.”

Ironically, his time at sea landed him a full-size 1939 circus tent, purchased by a man in his crew to build a tepee. Bex offered him some old sails in exchange, then he constructed poles, stakes and mud blocks. In the early 1980s, with the help of students, he erected it behind Rockport Elementary School.

The tent is replicated in the Bex Bros. Circus. Every detail is exact, even the rope holding up the tent, which Bex painstakingly spiced.

“It’s me being fussy,” he said, admitting that circus model builders aren’t required to be that exact with details. “The challenge is there, and so I did it.”

Beside the tent, a red trunk the size of an earrings box is made out of 51 pieces.

“I don’t keep track of the time it takes me to build things,” he said.

For more than 50 years, Bex has been a member of the Circus Model Builders Association, and when he was “a little guy” and too young to be a member, his father used to bring him to their meetings anyway.

“There were gentlemen there who really knew the circus,” he said. “You’d bring something and they’d critique what you brought — and they were not soft about it.”

Though the Bex Bros. Circus has been packed away in trunks for 25 years, Bex’s work has been on display throughout the United States.

About 20 years ago, master model builder and philanthropist Howard Tibbals requested his help in completing the Howard Bros. Circus, a replica of the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“It was on a ¾-inch scale, two times a big,” said Bex. “His model circus takes up an area the size of a basketball court.”

That complete model, along with several buildings and freight train cars constructed by Bex, is on permanent display at the Circus Museum at the Howard Tibbals Learning Center in Sarasota, Fla. But before settling into its permanent home, it visited the World Fair in Tennessee, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Henry Ford Museum, Smithsonian and Circus World Museum in Wisconsin.

Bex’s dispatcher station for the famous model is complete with a screen door, double-hung windows, raised-panel doors and an oak desk with papers hanging out its top drawer. And it took him months to find a photo of the valve on a water wagon so he could build working valves on his miniature copper water tank.

He uses just about any material that suits his purpose, from maple wood for the planks of a building to alphabet soup for the lettering on the side of a wagon. Look closely and the kettles in the cookhouse are actually cigar tubes.

“I haven’t built anything for a long time,” Bex said. “This is the first time my work has seen the light of day in many years.”

In Maine, he belongs to a group of circus model builders who get together once a month. And while circuses aren’t quite the same today as when Bex was a boy, he still makes a point to go every year.

“The Circus Comes to Town” will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Dec. 10, 11, 17, 18, 29 and 30, and Jan. 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 28 and 29. For information, visit PenobscotMarineMuseum.org or call 548-2529.

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