Circus and animal park proprietor (b. Bathurst NSW 1925; died Sydney NSW, 2001)

"The Big Top was home and he had no wish to leave"

by Jenny Tabakoff
Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January 2001

Some small boys run away from home to join a circus. I was born into it and I see no other way of life." So said Stafford Bullen, who has died in Sydney aged 76.

Stafford Leslie Bullen was born in Bathurst, where the circus founded by his parents happened to be performing. As a nine-year-old, Stafford's father, Alfred Percival Bullen, had declared his intention to establish the greatest circus in Australia. In 1920, he founded Bullen's Circus with his wife, Lilian.

Bullen's Circus vied with Wirth's, Perry's, Sole Brothers and Ashton's. Its 16 wagons criss-crossed Australia, with Stafford, his three younger brothers and sister in the entourage. He described his childhood as "marvellous and exciting". His circus career began at four: soon he was working as a contortionist, tumbler, clown, wire-walker, bareback rider, juggler, trainer of horses and elephants, and eventually ringmaster.

"As a small child, I was filled with the wonder of it - the animals who became my friends, the big-hearted performers, the hard work," he said. "There was a lot of laughter and comradeship you would never find in any other profession."

It was a hard life: young Stafford had to help erect the big top, train animals, play in the band and, above all, practise. When it rained, the wagons would often get bogged and the elephants would have to pull them free. The circus children had a tutor who doubled as a musician in the circus band: Stafford was an above-average student but his formal education ended at 14.

He became an expert animal trainer. At 22, he and his brother Ken went to Thailand to find suitable elephants, leopards and monkeys to bring to Australia. Bullen had an affinity with elephants: once, while unloading trailers in north Queensland, his truck was hit by a train. Trapped and drifting in and out of consciousness, he called out instructions to his favourite elephant, Gandhi, which ripped the wreckage apart to allow rescuers in.

Stafford and Ken Bullen ran the business after their mother died in 1965. Lilian Bullen, a remarkable character, had run the circus since retiring from the ring. In later life, she developed a habit of hoarding cash on Bullen properties. In 1959, schoolboys found a £40,000 hoard in Five Dock: her estate successfully fought for its return. In 1971, another cache was found at Yeppoon.

In the early 1960s, conscious of the threat television posed, the business began to diversify. In 1965, Bullen helped the Edgley organisation to bring the Great Moscow Circus to Australia, and later shows such as Disney on Parade, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Monte Carlo Circus and the Moscow Circus on Ice. In 1968, the African Lion Safari opened at Warragamba. [The marketing for the park opening included the release of a promotional single of the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight, produced by Pat Aulton and performed by an anonymous studio group called The Love Machine, which was actually Sydney band Tymepiece). With its drive-through exotic animal area and miniature safari railway, it attracted up to 200,000 visitors a year.

In 1969, the travelling circus closed and Bullen's Animal World, with a permanent circus, opened at Wallacia. Within three years, Bullen was chairman and managing director of six animal parks in Australia and another in Auckland. By 1977 Bullen, who was breeding animals for export, estimated he had about 360 lions.

In 1953, Bullen had married Cleo Rinaldo, his childhood sweetheart, in Adelaide: the reception, naturally, was held in the big top. Their mothers had both been Tivoli showgirls and, early in World War II, Cleo was invited to travel with the circus for two weeks. She never left, working as an elephant and horse rider, baton spinner and trapeze artist. Their children -- Mark, Brenton, Sonja and Craig -- were on the road until, in the late 1960s, the family left their two-storey caravan for good. At Casa Bullen, the palatial home they built next to the Bullen's Animal World at Wallacia, lion and tiger cubs, as well as the occasional elephant, could often be found in the back garden.

Bullen became bigger than circuses: apart from the animal parks, he bred lions and tigers for circuses and zoos. Other business interests included property development, the travel and entertainment industries, British casinos and attempts to buy into Channel 9 in Brisbane and Channel 10 in Sydney. He said he "found the discipline of circus training invaluable in business". In 1985, he based himself on the Isle of Man for a few years, travelling Europe with his son Craig to stock a zoo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

By then, the animal park business was becoming less attractive. As Sydney sprawled, Bullen complained about stringent regulations on keeping exotic animals. The difficulties of the increasingly suburban setting became apparent when an escaped lioness mauled a family's dog. In addition, animal liberationists made Bullen a target. He staunchly defended his record and the importance of his breeding program [although he was, by his own admission, convicted of cruelty to a monkey whose chain had become embedded in the flesh of the neck].

Bullen's Animal World closed in 1985 and the African Lion Safari closed in 1991. The family continued to maintain a private menagerie at Wallacia, hiring out animals for use in commercials as well as continuing to breed lions and tigers. Four years ago, Bullen's Mobile African Lion Safari toured Queensland. Early this year, Bullen was on the road again, with some elephants for Lennon Brothers Circus.

His funeral on November 16 was a genuine celebration, with circus colleagues recalling a flamboyant character who lived life to the full. Bullen is survived by Cleo, his daughter and three sons and four grandchildren.

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Jenny Tabakoff
Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January 2001