Billy Schultz's Indoor Circus
Born in Manitowoc in 1880, William (Billy) G. Schultz became an outstanding acrobat and aerialist. It wasn’t long before he left our community for the show world. He became a star in vaudeville, the circus, and the theater. For 26 years he traveled the world known as Billy Lester. He toured with the Killian Family Circus, the John Robinson Circus, the Al G. Fields Minstrel Show, Charles K. Champlin Repertoire Co. musical comedy companies, and with the Ringling Bros. Circus. It was with the Ringling Show that he had the center ring with the famous comedy acrobatic act “Lester, Bell and Griffin”.
In 1922, Billy Schultz married Linda Geisler of Manitowoc. As the Great Depression took hold, the Schultz family, now with 2 young children – Bill and Dorothy, decided to make a life in Manitowoc and lived at 1118 South 13th Street.
Working as a janitor at Washington Junior High School, Billy Schultz was approached by the Boy Scouts to put on a Boy Scout circus. Billy jumped at the chance and youth from the city excitedly became circus performers. The Boy Scout Circus was performed in 1925 and again in 1926. Following the experience, Billy wanted to teach youth circus acrobatics, teeter-board, clowning, trapeze, wire-walking and much more – and the Billy Schultz Indoor Circus was born.
The Billy Schultz Indoor Circus started in the upstairs gym at Washington Junior High School and a field near Grand Avenue and South 16th Street. Youth flocked to the circus training school, which Billy ran for no charge. Their first circus performance was in 1929 for Manitowoc’s “Manito-ween” Halloween celebration.
In 1932, the Manitowoc Vocational School opened and Billy took the job as janitor with the privilege of using the beautiful gym to teach circus routines after school and into the night. He turned the gym into a circus tent and taught any youth that wanted to learn the skills. There were over 20 different types of circus acts offered and it remained free to participants.
In 1933, he put on his first Vocational School Indoor Circus with 20 acts. The Manitowoc Herald Times reported, “A happy program at a time when people need good, clean diversion. Billy and his gang deserve a big hand.”
He put on circuses in 1933, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1942, 1944, 1946, and 1948. In 1935, Billy Schultz proudly accepted a new position with the Vocational School as the Director of Physical Education and Circus Acrobatics. He then put on shows throughout the Midwest and all money he made from those shows was given to the performers. In 1937, the State Board of Vocational Education made him a Senior Teacher in Physical Education, which was equivalent to a college degree in the education field.
NBC broadcast his circus nationwide, Paramount Pictures did a movie of his show called “Strange Occupations”, and the circus was featured in Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1941, the Manitowoc Mayor and City Council expressed their appreciation for Bill Schultz for his efforts on behalf of the youth of Manitowoc and the publicity the city received as a result of his work. The Manitowoc Lion’s Club named Billy Schultz “Man of the Year” in 1948, the year of his last circus.
Through Billy Schultz’s efforts, Manitowoc became one of the major American centers for training circus performers. Billy Schultz passed away in 1957.