at Bluffton
1908 - 1938

Buster Keaton
and the
Muskegon Connection

Max Gruber's
 "Oddities of the Jungle"

Maximilian Willian Gruber
Born: November 1, 1877
Romania Austria

Died: November 29, 1939
, MI
Adele "Della" Bono Gruber
Born:  December 25, 1874
Naples, Italy
Died:  May 4, 1944
Muskegon, MI

Max Alfred Gruber
Born:  November 18, 1898, Berlin Germany
Died: November 14,1952, Portland, Maine

Alfred H. Gruber
Born:  1903, England
Died: June 1968, Bronx, NY

     Veterans of the entertainment circuit, Max Gruber and Adele Bono married in 1896 in Norway, and together they traveled with a variety of carnivals and circuses in England.  In the winter of 1901-02, Gruber served as Equestrian Director for the Humphrey E. Brammall circus.
    In 1908, at the urging of a New York theatrical agent, the Grubers brought their act to America as performers in the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits.  In their first appearance in New York, they shared the bill with The Three Keatons. The Grubers had learned of Actor's Colony from other vaudeville performers and the couple visited Muskegon for the first time as an act in the Herbert Kline Carnival in 1911.  The circus disbanded in Muskegon following their performance, and the Grubers had time to visit with friends from their days in vaudeville.  Impressed with the area and the collection of performers in the Actor's Colony, the couple chose to settle in Bluffton.
     Originally, the act featured Minnie the elephant, (acquired in 1899) a horse and a Shetland pony.  The animals were well-known as performers on the vaudeville stages of America and over the years had toured with a variety of shows,  In 1913, they joined Buffalo Bill Cody's show.

      Residents of Muskegon became very familiar with Gruber and his animals because of their frequent visits to Lake Michigan Park, and Minnie's strolls in the lake.  A member of the Rotary Club and the Muskegon Exchange club Max and Minnie would make appearances around town.  She served as official mascot for a number of Actors' Colony baseball games.
     After years of touring, the Grubers were offered the chance to sell the act to Reas Bros. Circus in Mexico around the winter of 1919-1920.  Max accepted the offer and the Grubers retired from performing. However, the retirement was short-lived, as soon after Max accepted a position with Reas Bros to serve as the show's animal trainer. It was during this time that he became personally acquainted with Mexican Revolutionary general, Pancho Villa.

Max Gruber and Topsy
     About the winter of 1925-26 Gruber acquired Minnie II, a three-year-old elephant.   The elephant was taken to Bluffton for training, however, shortly after her arrival in Muskegon she passed away.  Soon after, the Grubers welcomed Little Eva, another three-year-old.
     "It is noted with interest" reported a Patterson, NJ newspaper in 1927, "that Eva is one of the few white trained elephants in captivity.  She was brought from Siam and her progenitors are among the sacred white head of that country. She is small for her age and has been in the United States less than a year."
     Joined by Topsy, a two-year-old zebra and Ringo, a Great Dane, the act was christened "Oddities of the Jungle." Topsy was, according to media, was "the only performing zebra in the history of world entertainment."
     Packed into truck custom-built by Muskegon-based Fitzjohn Corporation for the act, the Gruber's returned to country's vaudeville stages with Eva, "the human elephant" and Topsy, "the wonder zebra."  Eva would make frequent appearances, selling papers on the street corners, or pedaling a huge tricycle down the main street of the towns they visited.  She bowled on a portable bowling alley built by the local Brunswick plant.  Topsy would dance to Eva's drumming and organ grinding, and skipped rope for the entertainment of the masses.  
Tom Mix Max Gruber
        In 1936 and 1937, Gruber and the act toured the nation with the Tom Mix Circus. However, slowed by Max's health, the Grubers retired from performing in 1938, selling the circus, including Eva the elephant and Topsy the zebra to "Bud" E. Anderson of Emporia, Kansas, "once a famous cowboy film star."  Anderson's company later toured the country as Bud E. Anderson's Jungle Oddities and 3 Ring Circus.
    Like Keaton, Little Eva also made the move to Hollywood. It is said that she became a star in her own right, appearing with Johnny Weissmuller in several early Tarzan movies. Max passed away in 1939.  Following his death, Adele had the barn that once housed the animals remodeled into apartments.  The three-unit dwelling still stands and is christened "Memories"
A custom-built moving van designed to transport his act to theater audiences, Max Gruber's vehicle has a distinct Muskegon flavor.  The van structure was specially built by a local bus body manufacturer, the Fitzjohn Corporation, around 1927.  The chassis was very likely made by the REO firm in Lansing, the most common supplier for buses developed by Fitzjohn.  And also very likely its engine was provided by Muskegon's Continental Motors Corporation. Gruber used his special truck up to the time of his retirement in 1936.  Its ultimate fate is unknown.
~Marc Okkonen
Max Gruber presents
"Oddities of the Jungle"
Starring EVA - The Dancing, Bowling, Bicycle Riding, Drum and Organ playing elephant
with TOPSY the first performing zebra in existence.
 and RINGO the dog