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Circus Performers

Troupes of circus performers arrived in Bloomington as early as the 1860s. It wasn’t long afterwards that area youth began careers as trapeze artists.

Brothers Fred (1858-1897), Howard (1867-1952), and Harry Green (1867-1952) grew up helping at their father’s confectionery.

But when it came time for them to venture out on their own, they chose a very different career. Fred and Howard built a rig in the family barn and soon mastered aerial stunts, which they modeled after those done by the trapeze artists they admired.

Fred Green

By 1878 Fred and Howard, known as the “Brothers LaVan,” had an act with the Pullman and Hamilton Circus. 

In the winter they returned to Bloomington to prepare and practice for the next season. They attracted other aerialists to Bloomington who also used the family barn. Thus began the practice of aerial artists wintering in Bloomington, which soon became known as the “Aerialist Capital of the World.”

Flyer for The Brothers LaVan.

Credit: Courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collection, Milner Library.

Fred and Howard’s father did not like their career choice, but could not stop them from doing what they loved. But something else could.

What might that have been?

In 1880 Howard suffered a serious injury that ended his circus career, but Fred continued to perform and teamed up with two other aerialists known as the “Royal Russian Athletes” (although none were Russian).

The youngest Green brother, Harry, joined the circus too. In 1889 he and Fred revived the “Brothers LaVan” name and performed across the U.S. until ill health forced Fred to retire in 1896.

After Fred’s retirement, Harry was joined by his wife, Amy, and various other flyers in the renamed act, the "Flying LaVans." After perfecting their skills with Harry, many of these “other flyers” left to start their own acts.

Harry Green

Amy and LaVan promotional flyer.

Credit: Courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collection, Milner Library.

Tom Kitchen, Amy LaVan, and Harry LaVan, circa 1900.

Credit: Courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collection, Milner Library.

Harry retired in 1937. But until his death in 1952, he continued to train aerial artists at Bloomington’s YMCA and contribute to Bloomington’s legacy as the aerialist capital of the world.

George and Lorraine Valentine

George Valentine (1898-1955), like so many others, became a flyer after being enthralled by circus aerialists. George’s brothers, Bill, Fred, and Roy, also became flyers and performed together in various acts. But George wanted to have his own act. In 1932 he was introduced to a young lady who, having watched many practices at Bloomington’s YMCA, was also interested in flying. Soon after that George began training Lorraine Mather Valentine (1914-1987). They were married in 1935.

Lorraine and George Valentine

That year George, Roy, and Lorraine toured as the ”Flying Valentinos.” Their “thrilling” performances included blindfolded leaps and other daring and dangerous moves.

The most wonderful artists on the circuit . . . put on a ‘hair raising’ show. . . Mrs. Valentino who has won for herself the name of ‘Mrs. Take-a-chance Valentino,’ in her part of the death defying act, is only 20 years of age.
— Hearne Democrat (TX), May 24, 1935

The Valentines traveled across the United States, moving from location to location every few days during the circus season. Lorraine pulled their mobile home behind the car, while George and Roy pulled the trailer with their rigging and additional sleep space behind their truck.

Sue Pelto joined the Valentinos as a flyer in 1935. By then Fred had his own act, the “Flying Valentines,” and Roy, the “Flying Romas.”

Lorraine and George Valentine with Sue Pelto (left), circa 1938.

In 1947 George and Lorraine purchased the Happy Acres Stables in Normal and converted the barn into an aerialist training center, which they named Circus Haven.

George and Lorraine’s daughter Cherie was born in 1948. Four years later she had her official circus debut, performing a bird’s nest on a trapeze.

The Valentines’ Circus Haven, in west Normal, became a popular location for aerial artists to develop and practice their new acts for the coming circus season.

Cherie Valentine’s first performance trick was a bird’s nest in 1952. She performed this trick for photographers the following year, with her proud parents below.

George Valentine “Flying Valentinos” costume, Lorraine Valentine “Valentino Sisters” costume, Cherie Valentine costume
Circa 1945, 1954, 1953

View this object in Matterport

Lorraine made all the costumes used by the “Flying Valentinos,” as well as Cherie’s costumes.

Donated by: Cherie Valentine

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