Daughter of Coco the Clown who founded her own zoo in Norfolk
Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30
Olga Kerr, who has died aged 91, was the last surviving daughter of Coco the Clown, the star performer in Bertram Mills Circus from 1929 to 1967.
She herself became an accomplished circus performer as a trapeze artist and as one of a group of girl acrobats who performed covered in gold paint and were a highlight of the Mills circus in the immediate post-war years. In the 1960s, with her husband Alexander Kerr, a leading animal trainer, she opened a zoo at Cromer, Norfolk, which she ran alone for 13 years after his death in 1970.
She was born Olga Polakova in Riga, Latvia, probably on August 6, 1924. Her father, Nicolai Polakovs, had been a circus performer from childhood and he and his wife Valentina had six children, of whom Olga was the third. Polakovs was a stern parent, particularly, it seems, with Olga. In his second autobiography, Behind My Greasepaint (1950), he claimed, unfairly, that she had little talent as a performer "but did all sorts of work although her ambition was to be a nun".
By the end of the 1920s, Polakovs, as Coco, had established himself as a popular clown in Germany and was invited to appear in Manchester for the winter season of 1929-30 with Bertram Mills Circus. Mills was so impressed that he offered him a contract for the new travelling circus that he was launching. While his wife and two eldest children followed him to Britain, Olga and her younger siblings remained in Riga, looked after by their grandmother until 1934.
Olga attended school in Torquay, spending her holidays with the circus. But when it closed for the duration of the Second World War, she added four years on to her age to qualify to work as an ambulance driver-mechanic in the ATS.
After the war, the family returned to the circus where Olga soon met and fell in love with Alexander Kerr, a young Scottish elephant trainer who would go on to become Britain's leading wild animal trainer. He and Olga married in 1949. They had two daughters and a son and Olga soon gave up her own circus career to devote herself to her family.
After leaving Bertram Mills Circus at the end of the 1960 season, the Kerrs moved to the Norfolk seaside resort of Cromer, where they opened their own zoo in 1962. When her husband died in 1970, just three years after the birth of their son, Olga found herself tied to the zoo by a covenant agreed with the local council. The zoo struggled financially, but she soldiered on until 1983, closing down on Christmas Day. All the animals were found new homes except for the elderly chimp Billy, who had to be put down. In July 1984 the last lioness, a seven-year-old, escaped as she was being loaded into a lorry to go to her new home, and had to be shot by police.
In the mid-1980s Olga Kerr became involved in a spat with her sister Tamara, who had launched a touring circus named after her father, who had died in 1974. The fact that "Coco's Circus" featured no animal acts (Tamara claimed to be obeying Coco's last wishes) brought funding from the RSPCA, but infuriated Olga.
"How kind of the RSPCA to give my sister a 'loan' of £10,000," she wrote sarcastically in a letter to She magazine. "Is a registered charity allowed to do that, I wonder? Shouldn't the RSPCA question her about the elegant furs that hang in her wardrobe?"
Olga Kerr, who died on October 1, is survived by her son and a daughter. Her other daughter predeceased her.