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Tributes to Rhyl circus trainer who starred in first live TV broadcast from the town

Published date: 12 June 2014 |
Published by: Staff reporter
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Mario Kreft looks through a scrapbook 

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A CIRCUS animal trainer who made history just over 60 years ago when he starred in the first ever live TV broadcast from Rhyl has died aged 90.

Franz Kreft, who was born in Slovenia and came to Britain as a refugee after the Second World War, led a remarkable life travelling the world amid the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the circus crowd.

He trained bears, lions and tigers and carried on working until he was 77.

Among the highlights of his career were being introduced to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and meeting a host of film stars including Vanessa Redgrave.

He died of a heart attack at his home in a hamlet called Coët Pér  near Lorient in France and leaves his wife Pamela, aged 78, whom he met and married in her home town of Rhyl, and three sons, Mario, Carlos and Kevin.

Now better known as the owner of the award-winning care organisation, Pendine Park, and Chair of Care Forum Wales, son Mario, who lives in Denbigh, was born in Durban, in South Africa.

He was the first ever baby to christened in a Big Top in South Africa when the service was conducted in the circus ring by the Bishop of Durban. HIs Godfather was a clown called Charlie Bale.

The glamour of circus life was a complete contrast to the dire poverty into which Franz was born in a little village near Maribor in Slovenia in 1923.

Mario said: "My Dad was very proud of being Slovenian and he used to talk very fondly of the upbringing that he’d had and the community spirit there.  He was one of three boys and lost his mother when he was very young.

"After the war he got a job helping a man with chimp act and eventually got a job with Wilkie’s circus, becoming their bear trainer.

"He always had a love of animals from an early age he had a flair for training them and working with them."

In 1953, the dashing young Slovenian arrived in Rhyl where he was contracted for the summer season to Prince Cox's Circus.

As a result, he had a starring role in the first ever live televised show of any kind from Rhyl which was an hour-long broadcast on the BBC.

More importantly on a personal level, he also met a vivacious 17-year-old, Pamela Warburton, the daughter of Fred and Rene Warburton, who ran the former Pen-y-Don Hotel, on the promenade in Rhyl.

Mario explained: "They fell in love and my mother basically ran away to the circus. It was all very romantic.

"After Rhyl, my father went to work in France so my mother borrowed money from a friend, went to Manchester airport and flew over to France to see him.

"In the early 50s it was quite daring but then my mother always knew her own mind and she became a performer in her own right.  

"She was involved with the bears and was even once shot out of a cannon like a human cannon ball.  So she was quite fearless.

"They had their own bear act which they co-presented and then she had her own dog act.

"They travelled all over.  They went to Japan, South Africa and  all over Europe.

"They spent a great deal of time in Italy and my mother retired to France 25 years ago and he retired at 77. They had a couple of holiday cottages there.

"My Dad was always very good with animals and kind to them and seemed to make a connection.

"He had lions and tigers and the bears were a mixture of black bears, brown bears and Polar bears

"Life in the circus is like having one big family and because you’re all travelling and the show must go on.  

"In the early years, in Spain and in South Africa, they were literally one night stands and often miles and miles between them.

"In Spain you would travel around to festivals and each region or town would have its special holiday and that would be the time for the circus to be there.

"My Dad was the most unassuming  guy you could imagine but he took on a different persona in the ring.

"When he got into the ring, he just went into his circus artiste mode as a bear trainer.

"He always seemed big to me but he wasn’t particularly tall - but he was very strong and he had that presence, he had an aura and he looked the part.  

"My mother is very much a show woman. She was the daughter of somebody who’d performed in London as a professional dancer.

"She went to a private school in Rhyl and she had dance lessons and ballet lessons and drama lessons and singing lessons and all those things and I think she was a always going to be some sort of performer.

"My overriding memory of it is that it was a lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie and you went to lots of really exciting places.  We were able to go out and see things.  It was great.

"There are some interesting pictures taken of going shopping with my father and my mother and a bear.  I’m not sure that they’d have carried out a risk assessment but I don’t think that Health and Safety was in the ascendancy in those days.  It was quite amazing.

"There were wonderful characters really because they literally drew from all over the world, whether it was clowns or trapeze artists, you made friends with people from many cultures.

"There were always opportunities to meet people such as Vanessa Redgrave, Dennis Potter and the Pope.

"The Pope apparently liked the circus and had known about the circus in Poland and some artists were chosen to go to meet the Pope.  My Dad was one of them.

"For him being a Catholic it was a very big deal and he was very proud to have done it.  He’d come a very long way.  They were both from similar backgrounds,  so they had a lot in common.

"Vanessa Redgrave’s then husband, Tony Richardson, was directing for TV and it was set around a circus. They needed bears so they used the big top of the circus that my father was in and they used his bears.

"Had my Dad lived it would have been their 60th wedding anniversary this October but they had a rich life, meeting lots of interesting people and visiting lots of fascinating places.

"My Dad was known throughout the circus world as a top guy and was always in great demand as a top animal trainer.

"He tried in the best way he could to make sure we got a proper upbringing and went to school which is why I was brought up by my grandparents in Trefnant and saw my parents in the holidays.  

"The circus was his life and after the war his family. He was a very good circus artiste and loved his animals.

"He could never quite believe how lucky he had been considering how his life started in Slovenia."

 

For more news from across the region visit newsnorthwales.co.uk

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