Frank Fillis

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Francis Alfred Fillis (better known as Frank Fillis , 1857-1921) was a British born circus impressario and artiste.


Born Francis Edward Fillis on 13 July, 1857 in Lambeth, London,

He married Elizabeth Jane Carr in Dundee 6 January, 1877, while working with

The couple had a son Francis Alfred Fillis (known as Frank Fillis Jr., or simply Frank Jr, 1880-1961), who also had an illustrious career in South Africa, later joining the Sclesinger Organisation and working for the African Theatres association between 1914 and 1949.

After the death of his wife on 5 February, 1880, he married Eliza Maria Vincenta Mayol (1870[?]-1946) - later also known as Eliza Fillis or Madame Fillis - on 28 May, 1880. The couple had two children: Adele Vincenta Fillis (1891-), who began as a horsewoman in the Frank Fillis' Circus and went on to become a South African film actress and marrying H.V. Gandar of Durban. The second son, Cecil Edward Fillis (1892-), also grew up in South Africa and went on to become an internationally recognised horse trainer. Frank and Eliza divorced in 1906.

Frank died while on tour the Far East on 18 November, 1921 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bangkok, Thailand. Apparently his third wife took over his company there.

Career in South Africa

Fillis presented spectacular shows in permanent buildings in late Victorian and Edwardian Cape Town, Johannesburg and Kimberley between 1879-1912. His lavish shows cost 10 guineas for the gala evening, and he paid his clowns and other artistes very well. His second wife Vincenda Fillis (the world’s first “human cannonball”) and the two Boswell brothers were among his top acts. Frank Fillis established a circus in South Africa in 1883. Permanent arenas erected by the showman in “most of the principal towns” testified to the popularity of his company which had become “quite an institution” by 1893. Beyond the entertainment routes travelled by Fillis in southern Africa, his 100-strong company also toured the colonies and settler societies of Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and India. His 1892-94 tours of Australasia were responsible for transferring new trends in circus entertainments to local managers, but international scholarship recognises the showman for the epic spectacles he produced in London in 1899 and the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Part ethnographic people show, part historical reconstruction, Savage South Africa (London, 1899) staged epic re-enactments of the Matabele Wars of 1893 and 1896 for which several hundred native African people were imported. The Boer War military spectacle (St Louis, 1904) employed soldiers and officers from both sides to recreate major battles from the hostilities of 1899-1902. Throughout his career, Fillis repeatedly produced representations of war between British Imperial forces and the inhabitants of the colonies of southern Africa. His earlier staging of an episode from the Zulu War, produced in Australia in 1893, was a thematic precursor to the later military spectacles and also influenced acts subsequently produced in Australian circuses in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War.

Frank Fillis was South Africa's greatest and best-known circus proprietor of the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a highly talented horseman, animal trainer and choreographer of epic spectacles, like the Savage South Africa show in London (1899) and the Boer War Spectacle in St. Louis (1904). The former was part of the Greater Britain Exposition at Earl's Court. This show was meant to be a showpiece of South African (local) identity. Savage South Africa depicted scenes from the Matabele wars of 1893 and 1896 and was tasked with introducing Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as a new colony to the British public. The latter was part of the World's Fair in St. Louis, America, and scenes from the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) were depicted. As part of both spectacles a kraal was also reconstructed, presumably to depict the various black tribes in their natural, daily life. Showmen such as Frank Fillis helped to form European and American perceptions of Africans in the 19th and 20th century. Frank Fillis's Circus was for 30 years an institution in South Africa. Apart from himself, Frank's second wife, Madame Fillis (alias Eliza Fillis or Lazel Fillis) and later his three children, Frank Fillis Jr., Adele Fillis and Cecil Fillis formed part of his show.


He was one of the first to incorporate “animated photographs” into his show and caused a public outcry when, in 1898, he screened a film entitled The temptation of St. Anthony (presumably the one by Georges Méliès) at Fillis’s Amphitheatre in Cape Town. It resulted in the first act of local film censorship, with Fillis defending himself by claiming that he had not seen the film beforehand and undertaking to show only “refined” pictures from then on. He was the father of Adele Fillis, Cecil Fillis and Frank Fillis Jr.


Thelma Gutsche The history and social significance of motion pictures in South Africa 1895-1940

Floris J. G. Van der Merwe 2007. Frank Fillis: the story of a circus legend. Stellenbosch: FJG Publikasies.

D.C. Boonzaier, 1923. "My playgoing days – 30 years in the history of the Cape Town stage", in SA Review, 9 March and 24 August 1932. (Reprinted in Bosman 1980: pp. 374-439.)

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