Not many areas of Leeds can claim to have a retired circus performer, former zoo
owner and friend of Elvis Presley in their midst but Garforth has all three.
She is known as Olga Denver.
We found out about her remarkable life.
Born in Switzerland in 1929, Olga moved to the UK when she was a baby and settle in Leeds. After training at RADA she performed in various revue shows, singing, dancing and performing sketches in theatres across the country. When she was 18 she answered a job advertisement for ‘a girl with nerves of steel’ to work with Hal Denver, which was the stage name of Ralph Norman. Hal had grown up in the circus world as his father was Tom Norman, ‘the Silver King’. Norman was a travelling showman and became notorious for promoting Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man, alongside other ‘freak show’ acts.
Hal Denver had moved into knife throwing, whip and lasso acts and needed an assistant. Without really knowing what her role entailed, Olga took to the stage with Hal and soon found out there was no illusion involved in the act: “I thought that the board was rigged in some way for the knives to either come out or suddenly appear. I was petrified. I never dreamt that they were officially thrown. Hal told me to make myself as small as possible”. She recounts how Hal asked for Olga’s outdoor clothes to be hidden as he was worried she would run away as soon as she came off stage that first night.
I’ve had a very
interesting time, it’s been very different
After surviving her first night as Hal’s assistant she later went on to marry him and form ‘The Denvers’, an act that travelled the world performing in theatres, circuses and on television.
Olga recalls performing on the first television show in Italy that would be shown to the Pope: ‘I’d got a nice little leather skirt which I thought was very pretty with a fringe, a nice little blouse on and then a coat, like a waistcoat, very smart, very neat. Except they said they daren’t send this out as this was going out on the television to the pope. And why? Because I was showing my tummy and my legs! So they’d brought me a pair of comedy bloomers and I had to pull them all the way up to cover my bare midriff.’ "On that same occasion Hal had cut Olga’s nose with his whip act , so that’s what the Pope saw, me with a bloody nose".
Spending much of their time in the United States brought The Denvers into contact with a lot of other performers and Olga counted Marilyn Monroe as a friend: "She and I became very good friends and we used to go all over together. She even gave me a key, which I’ve got somewhere, to her hotel apartment so that you could go there and just make yourself at home".
The Denvers also worked alongside Elvis Presley and his band and regularly met with Elvis whenever they were working or staying close by. Olga’s elocution teacher also turned out to be Elvis’s aunt, a fact she only found out when he popped round for tea one day.
Later in the 1950s Olga performed a solo act as Olga Antonuchi with a troupe of Chihuahuas and would go on to be a judge of Chihuahuas at Crufts as well as founding the Northern Counties Chihuahua Club of Great Britain.
Olga and Hal Denver
In the 1970s she applied to open a children’s amusement park and zoo in Garforth at her home in Garforth. Continuing to work with Chihuahuas, she also trained parrots, geese, a Shetland pony, chimpanzee and a bull named Ferdinand. The family also owned a lioness called Lisa who had free rein of the house. She would travel in the car with them and even visit the local pub – The Gascoigne – and sit in the window and terrify the locals.
Her son, Carl, appeared in the Guinness Book of Records in 1971 as the youngest animal trainer, aged 1 year and 11 months, a record that still stands.
Olga is now 90 and still lives in Leeds. Shine contacted Olga to see how she was getting on.
Some of our readers might remember your zoo. Tell us about it.
We found this place called Garforth House, with quite a bit of land. We had a lot of animals anyway and started to collect more. I’d already worked in films so some of our animals were well known in the film world. Our chimp was called Judy.
What was she like?
Judy was a male actually! My first chimpanzee was a female called Judy – and the name stayed when we got another one. When we opened up as a zoo all the schools in Leeds and from all over the area used to visit. It was a very interesting time! We had day performances and all sorts.
And the lioness?
She had also worked in films. She was extremely good. She was very well-trained. She liked people.
What was Elvis like?
Very interesting. A gentleman. A very polite person. We didn’t work together, he was in the same sort of shows that we were in, so that’s how we knew him. We’d meet up a lot, go out for meals. And of course, there was his auntie who taught me elocution. A funny connection.
When you look back, how do you feel about your life?
I’ve had a very interesting time, it’s been very different. When I was very young, my parents sent me to the stage academy. I trained as a dancer. I went straight into the theatre life, met up with my husband and went from there. My whole life has been connected to the theatre.
And you settled in Garforth?
It was very strange to settle down. I did enjoy the travel. But after a while it would get on your nerves, living out of a suitcase. My parents ran a hotel in Leeds so it was easy to come here. I always liked Leeds, the people are really friendly and sociable. I’d lived in London and people felt a bit distant. But it was better in Leeds. A better atmosphere. They don’t pressurise you around here.
Olga and her grandson Beau
What is your life like now?
I don’t do any acting these days and I don’t do any animal training. I’m completely retired! I still live in Garforth. We’ve been here for years. I live with my son and grandson – he’s 4. It’s lovely to see him every day. And I know lots of people – or they know me – I seem to have been around for a long time. So if I go out in Garforth I can’t walk very far until people are stopping for a chat. I’m a chatterbox.
How are you coping with this new locked-in life?
Not bad. I’ve had a couple of days of not feeling 100%. It’s this having to stay-in business. It’s frustrating. It’ll be lovely when we can get out and about again and socialise with people.
Carl Denver is Olga’s son – and her carer. We asked him to share his memories of growing up amongst animals in Garforth:
I was born in Garforth. My parents opened Garforth House Amusement Parks so I was surrounded by a world of animals and spectators. A troupe of 40 performing Chihuahuas, musical geese that honked an old car motor horn and slid down a slide, a pony that gave people seesaw rides and counted with his hoof, parrots that could cycle, roller skate, go up in a rope pulled rocket and come back down under a parachute umbrella.
My dad was a dab hand at building props from his circus heritage and converted a pair of old trucks into a haunted house and a mirror maze of concave/convex mirrors that made people tall, thin, fat and short. Dad's dad (my grandad) was Tom Norman, the infamous circus owner (aka The Silver King). He managed 'freaks' including the Elephant Man amongst others such as Bearded Ladies, Giraffe Neck women and Electric Woman.
When I was little, I was plonked into a shared cot with a chimpanzee! I was registered in the Guiness Book of Records aged 1 year 11 months as the World's Youngest Licensed Animal Trainer. I am on page 171 of the 1971 Guinness Book of Records along with a photo of me in the cot with a chimp.
Carl with Lisa the lioness
It felt like I was forever in front of a camera when not at school. Posed with our pet lioness sleeping on my bed, with one of mum's top Crufts winning dogs, dressed as a clown, drinking tea at a chimps tea party, coaxing dolphins to backflip and waking up llamas with an alarm clock. Mum would drive me to Leeds Grammar Junior School past all the posh chauffeur driven boys in her bright orange Honda Z-Coupe with not only our pet Alsation dog, Silky, in the back but also Lisa, our 300 pound lioness.
The zoo stayed upon until my parents separated around 1976. Dad was missing the life of notoriety, travelling the world as a knife thrower amongst big celebrity names on stage all over the world. He hit the bottle – and frequently my mum on many occasions. Once I turned 18 she did finally divorce him and sold the house.
After our zoo closed mum took on all sorts of jobs to fund my schooling and feed us all. By all, I mean the house full of animals as well as ourselves. School holidays mum & I both worked at other zoos such as Heysham Head Leisure Park and Scarborough Zoo & Marineland. Most school kids my age would be at home playing with their mates or off on a holiday somewhere. I would be handing out fish for people to feed sea lions, walking a parade of penguins, showing the bears off doing their tricks, or even spinning people round on the waltzers in the adjoining fairground. I never missed out on feeling like I was on holiday as all the staff were like a big family and lots of fun.
As he grew older Carl developed a passion for photography, and this eventually became his career. He spent 12 years travelling the world as a cruise ship photographer. When he return to Britain he worked as a photographer at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and set up his own business, taking photos in nightclubs. Carl resumes the story below:
I finally hung up my camera gear this year and am now mum's full-time carer at home, as she has vascular dementia, alongside being my 4 year old son's headmaster during lockdown. Following in my dad's footsteps I fix up stuff, in my case property, using my tools and a couple from his old toolkit. I miss my fantastical life of fame, travel, 'dangerous' animals of the fur kind and 'party's animals of the 2 legged variety in nightclubs.
My son Beau is five in June. My girlfriend Becky and I took Beau backpacking through to India when he was just six months old. At age 3 weeks he was on the front cover of the YEP with all the players of Leeds United during their kit signing day. He hasn't done any press work since.
Carl and the chihuahuas entertain the crowd
More Shine a Light Stories.
Older people share their memories of significant or interesting events in the history of Leeds. In partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries.