Merle’s name might not ring a bell but he is considered the greatest circus band conductor in the world.
Merle Slease Evans was born on December 26, 1891 in Columbus, KS. His father was a coal mine foreman. At ten years old he taught himself to play the cornet to help draw people to buy his newspapers which he sold on the corner.
He left Kansas at 15 and played in revivals and touring shows, even spending time aboard the Mississippi River showboat Cotton Blossom and with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
In 1919 he was hired as the band director for the newly merged Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was known as the “Toscanini of the Big Top.”
During his career with Ringling, Evans witnessed the great depression, labor union strikes, and the death of a good friend. The most memorable event occurred on July 6, 1944.
During the show a fire broke out. When Evans noticed the fire, he signaled the band to play “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The song was used in the circus as a “disaster march” which let the performers know there was an emergency. The performers heard the music and started the evacuation. Evans and his band played until it was no longer safe then moved outside, where they played to help steady the crowd. While 168 people died that day, and another 487 were injured, Evans was credited with saving thousands of lives.
After 50 years with the circus, Merle retired in 1969. He moved to Sarasota, Florida and worked as the director of the Columbus (KS) State Bank. He also hosted workshops and guest-led bands around the world.
Evans was inducted into the American Bandmasters Association in 1947 and the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1975.
On December 31, 1987 Merle Slease Evans died at his home in Sarasota.