Hollywood Publicist Shirley Carroll O'Connor Dies at 93

By: Jan. 25, 2011
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.

Existing user? Just click login.

Longtime Hollywood publicist, Shirley Carroll O'Connor, whose colorful career included 25 years as the first female press agent under the Big Top of the Clyde Beatty, Cole Bros. and Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circuses, has died at the age of 93, in Laguna Hills, California.

Shirley was the president of The Carrolls Agency, one of Hollywood's top and oldest entertainment-based public relations and advertising before it was closed in 1980.          

She began her career in show business when she married into the circus in 1945.  Her husband, Norman Carroll O'Connor, was a ringmaster and sideshow talker, and was starting another career in public relations. Shirley joined him in this endeavor and recounted stories in her memoir, "Life is a Circus," of sharing a car with an uncaged leopard on her honeymoon, losing eight elephants on Hollywood Blvd., and having as friends such circus and sideshow performers as "The Sheep-Headed Men," "Flipper Boy," "Two-Faced  Man," and "Lovanda," a full-sized head on a platter.

After resigning from the circus in the 1969 season, she began handling theatre and rock accounts, earning her the title of "oldest counter-culture publicist."

Shirley and Norman established the Carrolls Agency in 1953 and handled publicity and advertising for H. Warner Buck's Sportsman Show at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, The Great Western Livestock and Dairy Show, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus, Jungleland in Thousand Oaks and the famous Pacific Ocean Park.  After Norman's death in 1967, she continued the business and moved into publicity and advertising for Broadway shows in Los Angeles. 

She was the press agent at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles for the original production of "Grease," and for "Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign," "Raisin" and "The Magic Show." At the Huntington Hartford Theatre she handled "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" and "Sammy Davis, Jr."

In 1972 she was engaged by Universal Studios Tour to handle the publicity for the new Universal Amphitheatre and its numerous rock and pop concerts, and for the American premiereof Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's hit musical, "Jesus Christ Superstar."  Following the close of the production she became Director of Tour and Amphitheatre Publicity for a seven-year stint.  In 1974 she handled the publicity and advertising for the American premiere of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip.

In the early 1960s she began a long association with Milt Larsen and his famous "It's Magic!" show.  The collaboration with Larsen resulted in the establishment of the Magic Castle in Hollywood where Shirley's job was to publicize the private club without making people feel that it was too exclusive.  Other Milt Larsen projects included "They Called It Vaudeville," "Where It Was - A Ragtime Happening," The Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica and the Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Shirley moved to California in 1934 and attended classes at Los Angeles City College and UCLA.  When the World War II broke out she became the assistant director of the Los Angeles office of Russian War Relief and specialized in the new field of public relations.

She met Norman at a party in Hollywood in 1944 and was married in February of 1945. It was at the annual Hollywood Santa Claus Lane parade in December 1946 that she became a legend in the press agent world for losing eight elephants of the Clyde Beatty Circus. The elephants and their trainers had left the circus winter quarters in El Monte in plenty of time to arrive at the designated location on Hollywood Boulevard.  Unfortunately, the truck drivers mixed up the directions and unloaded the elephants in a parking lot a little over three miles from the start of the parade.  Most of the Hollywood Division of the Los Angeles Police Department,  not involved with the parade, were dispatched to try and find the missing elephants.  When the trainers realized that there was no activity at their unloading site they started marching the elephants toward Hollywood and Vine Streets.  After a nearly two hour march through Hollywood area neighborhoods, without detection from the police, the elephants arrived just as Santa Claus was about to begin his journey down Hollywood Boulevard.  For the first and only time in parade history Santa not only had eight reindeer in the lead but eight elephants as well.

Shirley's job as the first female circus press agent was used for Rhonda Fleming's character in the movie "The Big Circus." She and Fleming made several publicity appearances together.

After her retirement Shirley moved to Leisure World in Laguna Hills and became active in a variety of clubs and community governance.

Donations in Shirley Carroll O'Connor's memory can be made to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, http://circusworld.wisconsinhistory.org.

Shirley is survived by her son, Kevin C. O'Connor, daughter-in-law Donna, and two grandchildren, Colin and Meghann.


To post a comment, you must register and login.