The Bernard family of Lakeland was for three generations a family of circus and vaudeville performers. The family was enshrined in the Sarasota (FL) Circus Hall of Fame in 1965.
The family's circus tradition began with family patriarch Floyd Bernard. Born Floyd Hardman in Boone, Iowa on July 23, 1885, he ran away from home to join the circus at the age of twelve and changed his name to Floyd Bernard. Bernard learned contortion and high wire acts and barnstormed with small circuses across the mid-west until joining the nationally known Ringling Brothers Circus in 1905.
It was while with the Ringling Brothers Circus that Bernard met his future wife, Maude Quayle. She had also joined the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1905 as a dancer in its opening "extravaganza." Their courtship was carried on discretely for nearly a year, primarily through exchanges of notes, because the circus had a policy prohibiting the employment of married couples. The two were secretly married in Winnipeg, Canada in 1906.
The following year Floyd and Maude Bernard were booked on the Sullivan-Considine vaudeville circuit as "equilibrists' and performed at theaters and fairgrounds up and down the east coast. A son, Howard, was born in 1908. In 1914, the family moved to Limestone, Florida where Floyd and Maude operated a drugstore when they were not on the road. Howard joined the act when he was twelve years old, the same age at which his father had run away from home to join the circus. The three billed themselves as the Merrill Brothers and Sister because it was apparently the belief of booking agents that performing families were less of an attraction than performing siblings. Floyd and Howard also had a high wire and pole balancing act in which they billed themselves as the Merrill Brothers. Merrill was chosen as the name for the act because it was Floyd's mother's maiden name.
The Bernard family moved to Lakeland in 1931, but continued to perform independently and as part of a circus throughout the decade. In 1939, Howard married dancer Dorothy Ames, who joined the other family members to form an acrobatic and high wire act known as the Four Merrill's. The extended family, by now including Howard and Dorothy's two daughters and a son, settled into Lakeland. Floyd became a mail carrier in the city and Howard, after undergoing flight training, served as a flight instructor in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida during World War II. The family still performed locally in such venues as Lakeland's Polk Theater, Winter Haven's Citrus Festival, and Plant City's Strawberry Festival. Family members also continued to travel and perform with the Shrine Circus.
In the post-war years, Howard worked as a flight instructor and the family act, now including Howard and Dorothy's two daughters, continued to perform at sites around Polk County. Maude and Floyd, both approaching seventy, retired from the act in 1954. The remaining four, Howard, Dorothy and their two daughters, continued to perform for several more years as the Four Bernadino's. The act finally broke up for good in 1964 when daughters Mary and Jean decided on careers outside of show business and the circus. Thus ended nearly seventy years of family tradition.
Floyd Bernard died in Lakeland in 1976 at the age of 92. Howard died at the age of 78 in 1986 and Maude followed her son in death in 1989 at the age of 100.