William Vincente Permane started out as an equestrian circus performer. He was born into a Spanish circus family, his parents being gymnasts and circus performers professionally known as Signor Vincente Permane and Gallipois Sanjuan. The Permane family travelled widely with different circuses and as a consequence their children were born all over Europe. William himself was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham in 1864.
As a youngster William was apprenticed as an equestrian rider to the circus proprietor Charles Adams who he stayed with for fourteen years before moving on Gaetano Ciniselli‘s Russian circus in St. Petersburg. Among his siblings were Spanish born Isabella, also known as Bellamina. She married Tom Transfield whose family at the time were part of the Nethergate Circus but he later went on to be proprietor of his own Transfield’s Circus. William also had two brothers; Henri who was born on Christmas Eve 1865 and who by 1871 had been apprenticed to the Kimberley Families Equestrian School in Glasgow, and Charles, who was born in 1872 and who in 1879 started to appear together with his older sibling as the Brothers Permane. Henri and his wife Ludmilla had a son called Constantine (1889-1940) popularly known as Constant, or even Tina. As this shortened name might suggest Constantine was very proficient concertina player and he appeared with Lily Cragg on the piano as a novelty musical act calling themselves ‘The Two Arkansas’. It was during William’s time as an equestrian performer in Russia that he made friends with Johnny Watson who had a circus act with a bear.
When Johnny was ill, William deputised for him and his fascination with bears began. He assumed the stage title of Captain, acquired some bears, the most promising of which he called Wodka and Sacuski, learned to train them and developed a performing bear act which he presented for the first time in August 1888 at Djurgarden in Stockholm, Sweden. They were next introduced at the Circo Price in the Jardin de las Delicias in Madrid and the Grand Eden Cirque before coming back to England in 1889/90 and appearing at the Covent Garden Circus, the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties and the Royal Aquarium Westminster.
As William related in an interview published in the Brooklyn Daily Echo of January 7th 1900……..“While in Russia twelve years ago I was struck by the way in which the bear cubs are brought up in the houses, just like dogs. Every 10 houses has a cub and the idea occurred to me that I would try and train one for show purposes. The attempt was successful and I have been a bear trainer since. My whole body is covered with bites and scratches and (baring his arm) these marks you see are the effects of Beauty’s teeth which went clean through the limb”.
William always trained Siberian bears, and always females which he found were more acceptable to his methods. He taught them to ride horses, ball-roll across a see-saw and dance and sing (after a style). One of their tricks was to drink from a beer bottle and feign drunkenness. The liquid in the bottle was usually no more alcoholic than sugar water although on one occasion, when they were appearing at Burton-on-Trent, circumstances were such that William had to let them sample Bass beer. He thought no more of it until the next time he tried to use sugar water and two bears, Beauty and Bubu, were having none of it, they had tasted the real thing and refused to perform until the real thing was served again.
William often worked in America and in the early 1900s he would have been among the first to become aware of the novel name of ‘Teddy Bear’, which was coined in connection to President Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunting adventure, or misadventure, in Mississippi in 1902. Before long William was presenting his act, which might include three, four or even five bears, as ‘Permane’s Teddy Bears’. He continued working these acts until at least 1925 when he was presenting the three bears that had been shown at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley the previous year.
William was a Freemason. He was introduced to the mysteries and privileges of Freemasonry when he was initiated at Chelsea Lodge No. 3098 in September 1905. He became the first of three members of the Permane family to be initiated into Chelsea Lodge and perhaps unusually, if not uniquely, all three would go on to become Worshipful Master of the Lodge. William was installed as Worshipful Master in 1934. His nephew Charles Henry Permane, listed as a music hall artiste, was initiated in November 1937 and installed as Worshipful Master in 1949. William’s own son, Vincent Adolf Permane, who had moved away from the music hall and into cinema and film production, was initiated in March 1958 and became Worshipful Master in 1970. Vincent was also exalted in Chelsea Chapter No. 3098 in March 1961 and was awarded London Grand Rank in 1980. He remained a member of both Craft and Royal Arch until his death in September 1991 aged 91. William died on 5th June 1939 aged 75.