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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Leroy McManus ... a mystery man

Friday, October 17, 2008

Above is a picture of Leroy B. McManus playing a guitar with his feet and each hand playing a guitar as he balances on top of a drum. McManus taught music to anyone who wanted to learn. He also made some of his own instruments.
Drums roll in the bandstand and the audience's eyes look upward into the blinding spotlights to see a small figure standing high above them on a tight rope. The ringleader steps out and announces the next show to be so frightening and daring that those who have tried to do this feat before have plummeted to their deaths. The audience gasps and the show begins. Effortlessly, the man walks across the tight rope and the audience cheers. This feat and others were accomplished by Leroy B. McManus, now deceased, of Viola.

It is not known exactly what time McManus was in the early circuses or which circus he was employed in. Both locals, Gary Cooper and Sue Billings, McManus' granddaughter-in-law, said he was in the circus but they do not know when or how he was involved in it. Most likely, McManus was involved in tightrope circus performances before the 1920s.

Before the 1920s, when the circus train would come into town, that was the thing to go to for the most entertainment on a Saturday night. When the Jazz Age came around, the circus train had very little appeal. Back in the day, circuses would transport all their animals, tents and cargo by train. With the mass production of affordable automobiles in the 1920s, trains soon became a thing of the past. But there were other creations which led to the downfall of the hey-day of the circus show. There was the crazy up-beat music of jazz and the dance club life. Radios were also in every other home in the United States and provided a good deal of entertainment for families in their own homes instead of a large arena tent packed with people and smelly animals.

Pictured above is McManus playing one of his hand-made fiddles. All of his hand-made instruments have been lost through the years.
Locals, back in the early to mid 1900s, called McManus crazy or eccentric. What would one expect of a former circus performer?

McManus lived in a small old, poor-looking house at the intersection of Highway 62/412 and 223 with his mother, who according to JaQuita Guffey, a former neighbor, the kids in town used to call Aunt Thunie, and his daughter. Now, a bright yellow fireworks stand resides at the intersection where locals buy their Fourth of July fireworks year after year. The foundation of the house can still be vaguely seen at the intersection only if one stops to look. According to Guffey, McManus added a tiny room to the house but made it three stories high. Also at the intersection is an old ivy infested tree with a cement wall around it. The tree has grown so much that the cement is cracking and the wall is falling apart. On top of the wall is the name Roy McManus and the date July 3, 1961, scribbled into the cement and covered in ivy.

Today, not much is known about McManus, who died in 1974, but what is known about him is spectacular. "He was a man born way ahead of his time," Billings said.

McManus, now with a full beard and long hair, is pictured posing with his daughter Opal. McManus had to quit his medical training to take care of Opal after his wife died.
According to Billings, in 1911, McManus married Leona Wayland and had a daughter, Opal. McManus then went up north to train as a medical doctor. However, in the middle of his training, McManus returned to his family to take care of his ailing wife and daughter. When his wife died, he stayed home to look after Opal. He put what he knew of his medical training to use, though. "Whenever he or someone he knew got sick, he'd mix up herbs to make them feel better," Billings said.

While living in Viola, McManus was sort of a jack-of-all-trades. He worked as a janitor at the school to raise money to take care of Opal. He did other odd jobs as well. McManus taught calligraphy and would teach people how to play music with any type of musical instrument, Billings said. She said he knew how to play about seven instruments and could even play a guitar with his feet. He played music with a band-saw, too. He also hand-made guitars and fiddles that have been lost through the years, Billings said.

According to Billings, McManus was also a painter. "He painted the first Longhorn sign for Viola School," Billings said. He also did some original oil paintings, it is not known whether any exist today.

McManus would also keep snakes in his house. Clara Brown, who knew him in her younger days when she would play with Opal, said she went to his house once and was afraid to go back. "He didn't seem to mind them," she said. "You could see them crawling around everywhere."

Among other things, this Renaissance Man wrote letters to his friends and family in code and made a universal calendar, which tells the month, day and date of any year.

According to several local people, including Billings, McManus was able to predict the future. Years before man landed on the moon, Billings said, McManus foretold the historic event. He also predicted the invention of modern-day computers and video conferencing through a telephone line, which sounds a lot like the Internet Web-cams we have today. "I remember him saying one day we would have a radio where we'd be able to see the people in it," Guffey said, who was about 4- or 5-years-old at the time McManus made the prediction. "Of course, there wasn't a name for television back then."

McManus would also tell fortunes. "We kids just loved to go see him and have our fortunes told," Majoria Deshazo, another former neighbor said. "We thought he was about half crazy, but the more I look back on it the more I think he was ahead of his time. A lot of young people's parents didn't want us to go. Some were kind of afraid of him, but he wouldn't harm a flea."

According to Deshazo, McManus was a very tiny man and his family didn't have much. "Of course, no one back then had much," Deshazo said.

Deshazo's brother knew a bit more about McManus. Deshazo said her brother told her about a time when he and some of his friends went caroling at Christmas and stopped at McManus' house and sang to the family. "They gave them a sack of peanuts, but my brother was afraid to eat them because he knew the family was so poor," Deshazo said. She said her brother was scolded at home later for not accepting McManus' family's gratitude.

"He was a pretty educated man. I do know that," Cooper an old friend of McManus said. "He was an interesting fellow to talk to."

"People were almost a little mean to him because he talked to himself," Guffey said. "One time he was talking to himself and (trotting) in front of what is now the pool hall and someone yelled out, 'Hey, why are you talking to yourself?' and he said, 'Cause I like to hear a smart man talk.'"

Later in life, McManus remembered his days in the circus. According to local, Ralph Moore, when the town of Viola would have community picnics, a tight wire would be strung up in the trees and McManus would walk it to entertain the crowd below as they ate, laughed and had a good time. When McManus was in his 70s, he walked a tightrope across the White River, Billings said. To be as old as he was and still be able to walk tightropes, he must have really enjoyed and missed his time entertaining spectators at circuses and still have been young at heart.

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