January 13: The Traumatized Future Star Who Survived the Hartford Circus Fire


Charles Nelson Reilly in a 1970 promotion for the TV show The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Born today in 1931, Charles Nelson Reilly was a Tony-Award-winning actor, comedian, and beloved TV personality best known for his appearances as a campy character actor on countless game shows, sitcoms, and movies in the 1960s through the 1980s. Later in life, he focused more on directing and voice acting, and after his death in 2007, he was fondly remembered as a kind man whose humor never failed to brighten the scene around him.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that a man known for for his upbeat temperament could never shake the memory of a single traumatic event he experienced during his childhood upbringing in Connecticut. Born in the Bronx in 1931, Reilly moved with his family to Hartford as a young boy and grew up there, eventually attending the prestigious Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford after discovering his love for music and the theater.

When he was 13, he and a friend attended the ill-fated Ringling Bros circus of July 6, 1944, which turned into one of the worst human disasters in Connecticut history after the big top tent caught fire and turned into a hellish death trap.

The Hartford Circus Fire killed over 160 people and injured hundreds more, most of them women and children. Reilly and his friend were able to leap off the bleachers and escape without harm, but later in life, while filming a one-man autobiographical play, Reilly described in detail the horror of seeing children wandering the scene with burned, mutilated faces. The incident so traumatized Reilly that in spite of his lifelong love of acting and the theater, he never sat in an audience again, claiming that being part of a large crowd reminded him of that terrible day in 1944. An actor famous for making people smile, but secretly haunted by a childhood tragedy in Hartford, is remembered today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Ann Marie Somma, “Actor Never Forgot Roots in Hartford,Hartford Courant

Charles Nelson Reilly, “The Life of Reilly: The Hartford Circus Fire,” youtube.com