NADIA HOUCKE (7/12/1926-5/9/2011)
Of Horses and Men
This is the story of the branch of the Houcke family which has for six generations shone in the largest circuses in Europe and America. It started in the 19th century and for two centuries has passed on its passion for the equestrian art.
Twice the horse has been replaced by wild animals. Tiger tamer Gilbert, the 4th generation and today Sarah, the 6th generation.
Life in the circus is hard and is not for the faint hearted. It needs not only perseverance, but also luck. Accidents happen often . Apprenticeship starts at a very early age.
The story starts with two young people.
He was Jean Leonard who was born into a well to do family in Hazebrouck. She was Adele Rene the daughter of a bargeman on the Saint Louis island in Paris ,became a horsewoman with the Circus Loisset. Their paths crossed on a tour in the north. Jean Leonard had run away to join the circus and fell doubly in love with Adele the beautiful rider and the horses.
Jean Leonard became an excellent horseman, and so the young couple found themselves in London with the Ashley Circus where in 1839 their first son was born, Adolphe Wilhelm Leonard. This last name will become distinctive with the descendents of Jean Leonard. It even became the name of the circus when the family bought the Gautier Circus in 1868.
In 1850 the couple left England and travelled through Germany with their own circus, the Olympique Circus and then the Leonard Circus. Later Jean Leonard worked with Lalanne and Franconni before becoming the director for Dejean in Paris. He then left for Scandinavia with Adele Rene and their eight children to direct and develop the Copenhagen Circus. He is considered to be the pioneer of the circus in Scandinavia.
In 1868 Jean Leonard died, none knows exactly where, leaving Adele Rene to carry on with the circus with her children.
The 2nd generation. The children of Jean Leonard and Adele Rene.
Jules and Theodore John, both excellent horsemen took over the direction of Circus Leonard until their deaths in 1879 and 1881. Their mother died the following year.
The eldest son Adolphe married Caroline Steckel. After the death of his brothers he took over the direction of Circus Leonard-Houcke.
Between 1892 and 1895 he became the director of the Hippodrome of Berlin travelling in over 400 towns in Europe. His eldest daughter died at the age of 19 years of the “Black plague” and his only son died at the age of 2 years. He died in Copenhagen in 1916.
Adele, the first daughter of Jean Leonard married three times. The last husband being Victor Borch, a friend of the Tzar Nicolas 2. She and her children perished in the revolution.
Charles the youngest son was the only one who didn’t become a horseman. He became a clown but died at an early age in Copenhagen in 1890.
Hippolyte Leonard was born in 1852 in Berlin. After moving to Paris he had a big success putting together large shows. One was the well-known pantomime Neron where there were over 200 horses, dozen of lions, an orchestra with 150 musicians. Hippolyte had two girls, Germaine and Susanne and a boy Hippolyte George. Hippolyte George had one daughter Evelyne Houcke, born 1943. She became a dancer.
Virginie Leonard Houcke, the last child of Jean Leonard, was one of the best horsewomen of her time. She made her debut at the Circus de l’ Imperatrice in 1876. She married Lucien Worms in 1878 in London.
Eugene Louis Leonard was the 4th son, born in Lauenburg in 1850. He became director of the Circus Oslo and Circus of Copenhagen. He married Fanny Tourniare, the daughter of another large circus owner. At the age of 39 years he died leaving sons, Jean, Lucien and Hippolyte.
The 3rd generation
In 1903 the three brothers were in Norway. Jean fell in love with Louise Ihlen. They married in Berlin against the wishes of her father who was a prominent lawyer in Norway. The union lasted only four years and produced one son Eugene Victor Hippolyte Leonard, who was the last to carry the name Leonard.
In 1910 the three brothers left for America for a contract at the Hippodrome in New York. Lucien died there of peritonitis.
Hippolyte died in Vienna of tuberculosis. His wife died shortly after, leaving two children Lucien and Fanny. Lucien Jr. died after he fell from his horse at the age of 27 years and Fanny spent her youth in an orphanage until she married Erich Blumenfeld in Germany.
In 1914 Jean married for the second time, Marcelle Rancy. They had five children. Huguette, Maurice, Gilbert, Sacha and Nadia. Jean Houcke was in 1920 the director of Circus Bertram in England and later had his own circus in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Carre Amsterdam, Amiens, Bordeaux and Paris. In 1944 at the liberation of Paris he was in the Grand Palais. The Germans bombed the circus, destroying everything. Jean was ruined. Although he had Swedish nationality he was never reimbursed for his loss. Jean died in Paris in 1973 at the age of 95 .
The 4th generation
Eugene the eldest son of Jean fell from his horse in 1920 never to ride again.
The half brothers and sisters made their debut in the circus with their father. All were brilliant horsemen
The three brothers Maurice, Gilbert and Sacha revived the Roman Chariot race at Circus Houcke at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Maurice was the only one who held a French nationality. He served in the war and was decorated with the “Croix de Guerre”
After the war the five brothers and sisters went their separate ways. Huguette married Jean Ghezzi and had two girls Annie and Chantal. Maurice went to Circus Krone in Germany. He had one son Michel, born in 1941. Maurice died in 2002. Gilbert discovered his love for tigers and worked in all the large circuses in Europe. He married Jacqueline San Miguel. After an accident and stroke he died in 1984. Gilbert made the well known circus film “Stern uber Columbo” with circus Busch in India. Sacha was with Circus Pinder in France and then moved to Circus Knie in Switzerland. He married Imme Thomas, a Czech actress and produced one son Sacha jr. who is the only one that carried on the circus tradition. Sacha died in 1989. Nadia travelled to England and America working and now lives with her husband Geoff Morris in England.
The 5th generation
This generation consists of only Sacha jr. in the circus. He has combined all the talents of his ancestors and become one of the best trainers and presenters of our time. He too has worked in all the larger circuses in Europe and America. Sacha married Judith Benson and they have two girls Sarah, named after her Aunt Sarah Rancy, and Karin.
Sacha is at the moment with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in America where he trains and presents horses and elephants.
The 6th generation
This last generation consists of Sarah born in 1977. She came under the tutorship of her father from a very early age. She made her debut with animals at 12 years old. Already at such a young age she has proved herself a true Houcke, training and presenting all types of animals including tigers like her great uncle and great-great aunt. She also has worked in many large circuses in Europe and America.
Karin is the last to be born into this dynasty in 1983. She is with her father the U.S.A. where she is learning everything that her father can teach her. She already is presenting her own numbers under the guidance of her father
Nadia Houcke, who died in Lincoln on September 5 aged 84, was the last surviving child of the famous Houcke circus dynasty — her father, Jean Houcke, was one of Europe’s most celebrated circus directors and horse trainers.
Nadia Houcke performing on horseback at Bertram Mills Circus
Jean inherited the Cirque Houcke, which had been founded by his grandfather in 1834 , but became known in his own right as the director of the great Nouveau Cirque in Paris from 1905; as artistic director of the Hippodrome in New York in 1911-12; founder of a circus in Constantinople; and as the director of circuses in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Amiens.
The former chief rider and instructor to the Imperial Cavalry Riding School in St Petersburg, Jean was also the artistic director for the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia, London, for three years from its inception in 1920 .
Jean always wore a monocle, and Nadia Houcke would recall: “For a joke, someone once changed his monocle for one with clear glass, thinking he wouldn’t be able to see clearly. But it made no difference — his own one was plain glass, just for effect.”
With his wife, Marcelle Rancy (from another famous French circus dynasty), Jean had five children, the youngest of whom was Nadia, born in France in December 1926. All the children came to prominence as riders and horse trainers. One of them, Gilbert, a talented bareback rider, capitalised on his film star looks and superb physique to go on to present his group of Bengal tigers while dressed in a “Tarzan” loincloth; he directed the graceful movements of his beasts with an unsheathed knife.
Nadia Houcke remained faithful to the family’s equestrian roots, becoming the youngest haute école (advanced classical dressage) rider of the time and appearing regularly in her father’s shows at Amiens. She later performed in other leading European circuses — including the Cirque Medrano in Paris — as a dressage rider.
In 1954 John Ringling North invited her to appear in America with The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”. For three years she starred in her dressage act until Ringling North closed the show, in 1956, as a result of soaring overheads and labour disputes.
On her return to Europe, Nadia Houcke was signed, in 1957, by the Bertram Mills Circus, with which she toured every summer from 1958 to 1963, presenting dressage and liberty (riderless) horses and ponies owned by the Mills brothers.
In 1958, while touring with the show, she had the unenviable task of appearing in the ring immediately after Frances Duncan, a trapeze artiste, fell to her death in front of a packed audience in Wales.
Nadia Houcke’s father was said to have been the first trainer to introduce dummies as riders on the backs of liberty horses, and she re-created this act with a team of Bertram Mills’s chestnut Arabian stallions, presenting it at the Belle Vue Circus, Kings Hall, Manchester, in the winter of 1959-60 .
Her last assignment for Mills was at Belle Vue in 1963-64, presenting liberty horses and a novel act with ponies pulling sulkies (the vehicles used in trotting races).
Nadia Houcke spent a year in South Africa with the Boswell-Wilkie Circus, to which her brother Gilbert later took his celebrated tiger act. She then settled in Britain with her second husband, Geoff Morris, a saxophonist in the Bertram Mills Circus orchestra, who survives her.
By Dominique Jando
Nadia Houcke (1926-2011) was heir to two of France’s most celebrated and respected circus families: Her father was the legendary equestrian and circus director Jean Houcke (1878-1973), and her mother was born Marcelle Rancy—the granddaughter of the famous circus dynasty’s founder, Théodore Rancy (1818-1892), and daughter of equestrian and circus director, Alphonse Rancy (1861-1933). Nadia Houcke was a true circus aristocrat and, not surprisingly, an equestrienne of great talent.
Born on December 7, 1925, Nadia was the youngest of Jean and Marcelle Houcke’s remarkable children: Huguette (1915-1982), Maurice (1917-2002), Gilbert (1918-1984), and Sacha (1923-1994), who were all prominent equestrians. Both Maurice and Sacha Houcke were long associated with such circuses as Krone, in Germany, and Knie, in Switzerland, and although he was himself an excellent equestrian, Gilbert Houcke eventually turned into a unforgettable tiger trainer, and a major circus star when he became the first "Tarzan" of the big cage in the 1940s, wearing only leopard-skin briefs.
Nadia Houcke made her debut as a high school rider at an early age (she was billed as the "youngest high school rider" of her time) in her father's circus, then based at the Municipal Circus of Amiens, in the North of France. She later embarked in an international career as a high school rider, appearing in some of Europe’s leading circuses, including the Cirque Medrano and the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, and three seasons with Circus Mullens in Holland. In 1954, she was signed by John Ringling North to be featured in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show, with which she remained until 1956—the last season under canvas of The greatest Show On Earth. There, she worked along two of the greatest high school riders of the time, Roberto de Vasconcellos and Arthur Könyöt.
Upon her return to Europe, Nadia Houcke was hired by Cyril Mills, and performed as a high school rider for the Bertram Mills Circus’s Olympia Season in London (where her father had been Artistic Director, from 1920 to 1923) and then toured with the Mills tenting show, presenting their liberty and other equestrian acts until 1963—at the end of which season the Mills brothers ceased the activities of their touring show. Her last assignment for Mills was at the Belle Vue Circus in 1963-64, where she presented Mills’s liberty horses and a novelty act with ponies pulling sulkies.
Nadia Houcke spent her last season as a circus equestrienne the following year, with the celebrated Boswell-Wilkie Circus in South Africa. Back to Europe, she retired and settled in England with her husband, Geoff Morris, a former saxophonist in the Bertram Mills Circus orchestra. Nadia Houcke passed away in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, on September 5, 2011, at age eighty-six.