Family Business

Most parents would be horrified if their son threw knives at his sisters. But, having a knife-thrower in the family is par for the course with Canada’s Bishop clan – father Tom, mother Jan, son Tom Jr., and daughters Sally and Sarah – a hard-riding group for whom risk-taking is a family enterprise.

For three generations, the Bishops have been avid practitioners of what are referred to as “the western arts”of trick roping, trick riding, horsemanship, and sundry other facets of live performing, cowboy-style. Their rare, even odd, skills (particularly for natives of Ontario, an eastern Canadian province) put them on career trajectories that’ve included rodeos, wild-west shows, stage performances, circuses, television and film stunt work – even opera. Their travels have taken them from movie lots in California, Canada and Europe, to the middle-eastern Dubai deserts.

Needless to say, the Bishop family’s history is a bit more colorful than most. Truth be told, they owe a great deal to one of the most colorful characters the West ever produced: the great showman Buffalo Bill Cody.

Modest Beginnings

Cody, in his big hat and knee-high leather boots, sparked the imagination of a young Scottish lad, Thomas W. Bishop. Cody was presumably drumming up interest in his wild-west show by performing an outdoor shooting exhibition in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the striking figure with the long beard and steely eyes left an indelible impression on the toddler. It’s understandable that this impression stuck in the young boy’s mind, because there was little other glamour in his difficult childhood.

Thomas’ father died young, and his mother suffered ill health, forcing her to turn her two boys over to an orphanage. Before they’d reached their teens, the boys were given their choice of British Commonwealth territories; speaking for both, Thomas chose Canada, where he knew there were cowboys. After a disastrous trip to Alberta, where the two boys nearly starved to death trying to homestead a quarter-section of land, the city-raised boys headed east. Instead of a life on the lone prairie, the two took up residence on a farm near Montreal, where they labored from dawn to dusk, essentially as indentured servants to the farm owner. As chance would have it, Cody passed through the province, and Thomas was able to see Cody’s extravagant show. It solidified his desire to become a horseman and, perhaps, one day perform in such shows.

Eventually, Thomas negotiated his and his brother’s freedom from the farmer and left for the Pleasantville, Ohio, Beery School of Horsemanship. There, his education began. Thomas proved an apt pupil, and more than a hand with a misbehaving horse. His skills helped the boy earn his keep.

“People assume that, before cars came into fashion, everyone was a capable horseman. But really, only a few people were any good with a horse,”says Thomas’ son, Tom Bishop. “People would come to horsemen to correct problems. After awhile, people were bringing all kinds of horses to my dad. ‘The problem,’ he’d say, ‘is not with the horses, but with the riders.’ “

Thomas also had a knack for showmanship, another quality that’s passed through subsequent generations. Early in his training career, he acquired a horse named Saladin, a black stock horse referred to as “Sandy.”Bishop had the horse so well-trained, he’d ride into town with the bridleless, reinless horse towing a buggy – a practice eventually banned, as it thrilled some townsfolk, but made others equally nervous.

Thomas and Sandy also staged shows. In addition to trick riding, displays of horse training, and fancy roping, the pair had a signature act that excited crowds. During World War I, the young man had Sandy mount a stage and pull the trigger on a cannon that shot an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm.

In grand Buffalo-Bill style, Thomas also staged full western melodramas.

“At that time (the 1930s and ’40s), it was a different world,”he recalls. “Movies were just coming, and there was, of course, no television. Live performances were hugely popular, and dad’s shows filled the grandstands. Indians came thundering into the arena to raid the stagecoaches and kill the settlers. And then, the cavalry rode in to save the day. The shows included all kinds of things like that, which wouldn’t be termed ‘politically correct’ today.”

Of course, growing up in such an environment made young Tom keen on horses in particular, and show business in general.

“Being involved wasn’t mandatory,”Tom says. “But I didn’t know there was anything else but horses. I wore cowboy boots to school, even though the kids made fun of me. Not many people had horses following World War II, and if people saw me out riding, they’d drive by and yell, ‘Get a car!’ “

But his family’s western lifestyle had its upside. The family frequented the Circle M Ranch in Toronto, a favorite spot for Hollywood cowboys working on projects, or simply on hiatus. One day, while Tom was still a schoolboy, he and his father had the opportunity to see Roy Rogers and his famous horse, Trigger. Tom was hoisted onto Trigger’s back, an incalculable thrill for a young boy in the 1940s. Alas, when he went to school the following week and told his schoolmates, not a one believed he’d actually met “The King of the Cowboys,”much less got to sit on Trigger’s back.

Fresh Start

By the time Tom graduated from high school, the world had changed dramatically. Movies replaced live shows, and the wild-west show was becoming more a historical artifact than viable entertainment. When Tom’s father died in the 1950s, the family-business’ viability was in doubt.

Then, newly minted television sets began pumping cowboy programs to the public, and Tom was back in business. He and his sister, Lorna, an accomplished trick rider and stuntwoman herself, produced rodeos with plenty of western showmanship. Tom was briefly sidetracked into a broadcasting career, staying long enough to meet his future wife when, as a local celebrity, he was asked to judge a beauty pageant. The pretty girl was the daughter of a prominent farmer, and during the pageant, she’d expressed a strong horse interest. This captured Tom’s attention, and might’ve tipped the contest in Jan’s favor, for she won.

On their first date, they went to an upstate New York rodeo that Tom produced. It wasn’t long before his bride-to-be was learning trick riding, and being conscripted to take part in Tom’s western performances as part of the act. Their 1965 honeymoon was spent in Blackpool, England – but it was hardly a bed of roses for the young couple. Contracted to work in a western show, they arrived in England with other performers and 35 horses, only to learn the promoter had gone bust. With no way of getting themselves or the livestock home, the cowboys decided to auction their horses and possessions. This gained nationwide attention, and the Canadian cowboys became celebrities across Great Britain. Donations poured in, but only to send the horses home.

“The auctioneer allowed us to sell 10 horses,”Tom says. “We also sold things like our boots and our shirts – boots with a hole in them sold for more than I paid originally. I sent Jan home, to go back to nursing school, then had to wait weeks while a dock-workers’ strike kept us from shipping the horses.”

Finally, the strike ended – just as the seas got rough. Tom and other cowboys rode back in a steamship, sick to death nearly the entire Atlantic crossing.

“You just wished you could die,”he recalls now, with good humor. “We were sick until we couldn’t get sick any more. By the time I got home, I’d lost so much weight my wife didn’t recognize me.”

As the 1960s gained momentum, and the Bishops began plan
ning a family, Tom was swept into the movie business. Filmmaking was just gaining a foothold in Toronto, where workers and shooting sites could be had more cheaply than in California. There was a need for stuntmen. Or, as Sally Bishop likes to say, “They looked to cowboys and horse people because they were used to falling on their heads.”

Tom and Lorna were much in demand, not only as stunt performers, but also at local trade shows, fairs and stage shows. Tom added a domestic- and exotic-animal menagerie to his offerings, and built an impressive collection of wagons, carts, coaches and other horse-drawn conveyances for use in movies and performances.

Next Generation

Needless to say, with an ever-expanding slate of business interests, the kids got involved in the family business at early ages. Sally, the middle child, scarcely remembers a time when she wasn’t riding and performing with her family.

“My dad started teaching me trick riding as early as I can remember – I think I was 7 years old when I did my first show,”Sally recalls. If the kids weren’t trick riding or otherwise taking part in the family shows, they were on movie and television sets, corralling and training animals. They never had to beg their parents for pets.

“We worked with some exotic animals, but mostly we had domestic species – horses, goats, pot-bellied pigs,”Sally says. “I had various ferrets, rabbits, birds, skunks, raccoons. We’ve had every animal imaginable at one time or another.”

Sally admits that growing up amid a western-performance troop wasn’t always easy. “I rebelled against it. As a teen, I wanted to play sports. I wanted to get away from it. I played basketball, ran track, and was on the rowing team,”she says. “I’d made up my mind that I was going to excel in a normal career, have a steady job and a paycheck. But that didn’t last long.”

Indeed, after graduating with an environmental-science degree from Principia College in Illinois, Sally was accepted into law school. But she ditched academics to run away to the circus, so to speak.

“Two weeks before law school, I got an offer to trick ride at the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas (Nevada) with Tad Griffith,”she says.

Meanwhile, Sally’s younger sister, Sarah, struck out to study broadcast journalism at the University of California at Los Angeles. Sally went west to join her sister after injuring herself just a few performances into her Excalibur run. “I was only going to go for a few weeks. I ended up staying four years,”she says.

Sarah got sidetracked with the Hollywood lifestyle, working as a personal assistant to actress Jane Seymour. Meanwhile, Sally honed her skills as an actress (appearing mostly in community-theater productions) and stuntwoman, taking high-performance driving schools, getting scuba certification, and practicing high falls from buildings. As a stuntwoman, Sally doubled for a variety of actresses, including Tia Carrere, Jane Seymour and Mary Steenburgen.

Family Reunion

One occasion that routinely brought the family together was the Canadian National Exhibition, among North America’s largest fair events. Tom created an entire western town for the exhibition, and the kids returned to Canada each summer to help with a stage show and trick-riding exhibition. While Tom Jr. and Sarah performed in the stunt show, Sally led the riding troupe.

It was at the CNE, of course, where Tom Jr. threw knives at his sisters. Both girls volunteered to be spun on a wheel while their brother tossed the foot-long blades. Although many such knife acts are faked, with knife handles hidden in the target and thrust through the face with precision, Tom Jr.’s act is the real deal.

What’s does mother Jan think of the act? “It’s not easy for me to watch. I do a lot of praying,”she says. “When it’s your kids, you have to overcome your fears and trust that they know what they’re doing. When Sarah helped Tom with the knife act, she trusted Tom.”

Not surprisingly, her employers didn’t. After learning her trade in Los Angeles, Washington state and Colorado, Sarah secured a job as a Buffalo, New York, news anchor. One employment stipulation: She can’t take part in her brother’s knife-throwing show. “But I still help the family with trick riding,”she adds.

Tom Jr. is the child most closely wedded to his parents’ enterprise. In addition to working alongside his father for film and television projects, he continues to work in family productions, filling a number of roles as an all-around contract performer. Though many performers are better at particular arts, such as Roman riding, whip and rope stunts, fancy roping, and trick riding, few possess Tom Jr.’s versatility.

“I’ve learned everything and anything,”says Tom Jr. “I guess you could say knife-throwing, though, is one of my specialties. But I can’t afford to do just one thing. I have to do a lot of western acts to fill in our wild-west shows. I do trick riding, when I have to, whips, and Roman riding. We have a really good Roman-riding team, and we’re working on a four-horse, Roman-riding hitch. That’s something I don’t think anyone’s doing.”

Well, certainly not in Toronto.

More Challenges

Tom Jr.’s also the family historian, collecting hundreds of photos of his father, mother, aunt and grandfather. He takes great pride in their western heritage, despite the fact that most of that heritage has been spent in an eastern province.

“I think the cowboy lifestyle has a long pull on people. Anyone who enjoys horses and riding and shares basic frontier ideas about things like honesty, generosity and hard work can be a cowboy,”he says. Adhering to a certain dress code helps, as well. “I just hate to see ropers in street shoes, with ball caps in place of cowboy hats.”

Less sartorially rigid, Sally’s taken her specialty, trick riding, to a new and rather unconventional plateau. In 2004, she joined in the production Cavalia, a high-concept mixture of horses, equestrians, dancers and acrobats. The show was the brainchild of Normand Latourelle, one of the masterminds behind the famous Cirque du Soleil. The Cirque productions didn’t include animals, but Latourelle envisioned a production in which horses and humans interacted, something that artistically expresses the trusting relationships and bonds formed by the two species.

With no preconceptions of what horses could and couldn’t do, Latourelle asked Sally, and others, to try seemingly impossible stunts, such as riding below hovering acrobats who descended upon the horses like angels.

“When my dad first saw the performance, he said that only a nonhorseperson could’ve created the concept, because horses just aren’t supposed to do the things we ask them to do,”Sally says. Still, the veteran performer had less trouble fitting into the highly choreographed production than some of her fellow riders. “I like taking trick riding to new levels, repackaging it and presenting it in an exciting fashion. That’s what’s been interesting to me about performing in Cavalia.”

Despite the thrill she gets from participating in the show, Sally can’t predict how long she might be a part of the production. Like her family, she has a restless energy and a hunger to try new challenges. But one thing’s certain: She and her siblings, like their parents, will always keep a hand in, and a lasting affection for, the family’s risk-taking, western lifestyle.

As another performer, trick-roper extraordinaire Vince Bruce said, “I came from London, and Sally and her family come from Ontario. But we all share a love and admiration of the cowboy and his artistry. You don’t have to be from Texas to appreciate it. Everyone throughout the world has, at some time, dreamed of wearing a big white hat and starring in a wild-west show.”

Indeed, that dream lives on for this amazing family. Cody would certainly be pleased – even if the kids sometimes throw knives at each other.

Leave a Comment