- Historic Sites
Sex Death And Ronald Mcdonald
ON THE ROAD DURING THE ERA OF GREATEST PERIL FOR THE ONE INDISPENSABLE AMERICAN SHOW
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
“The acts are usually coordinated, so the music is appropriate for all three rings,” Charles Bertini, the circus’s bandleader, had said earlier that day. “But if for some reason the three rings are not coordinated, you almost always play for the center ring.”
The Clyde Beatty band was tight. When a butcher slipped on a wet aisle and tumbled out of the bleachers, the drummer, noticing the fall out of the corner of his eye, gave the accident a drumroll. The band offers a kind of musical narration for the show.
“I tell the band, ‘Cue everything, even someone scratching his butt,’” Bertini had said. “They do, and that’s hard. But no one realizes how good they are. The audience is used to background music on television, which of course is always perfect. They come to the circus and take it for granted. If we do a perfect show, no one notices; if we make a mistake, everyone notices. And they’re not used to clapping in front of the television, so they don’t clap that much here. You begin wondering, What would make them clap, what would get them excited?”
John Pugh sat down next to me on an equipment box under the bleachers. “I was just watching the news tonight on television,” he said. “Incredible. They were showing footage from that war in the Sahara. A cameraman was with a group of soldiers attacking a rebel encampment, and he got a shot of a guy getting his head blown up. He zoomed in on the brains spilling out. Christ, that’s what we’re competing with.”
After the last act most of the spotlights were turned off. Inside the big top Greg and the other butchers were cleaning up the bleachers. “If you miss work,” Greg said, “they fine you two dollars.” Outside clown alley Bernie and Julius were bent over buckets, soaping and splashing their faces, washing off their clown makeup. On the midway a little girl, about ten years old, lagged behind her parents, who were already halfway to the parking area. She stopped at a puddle, studied it a moment, and then, mimicking a circus performer, made an acrobatic leap across the water.
I sat in my van, sipping a cup of black coffee I’d laced with whiskey, watching the circus fragment into the night. My fever had broken earlier that evening. For the first time all week, I did not have the cold sweats, and the world no longer had a vivid, everything starkly outlined, hallucinatory quality.
The circus, like a dream you began losing little by little as you woke up, was vanishing. When the poles, supporting one side of the big top, were removed, the canvas, suddenly collapsing, gave the tent the shape of an elephant bending its front legs and lowering its head for someone to mount. Then, the other side of the big top sagged, and the tent looked like a pagoda. The last poles were removed, and the canvas dropped.
His eyes were set deeply within fleshy pouches, which were cross-hatched like the skin around an elephant’s eye, and his lower lip hung down like an elephant’s lower lip.
“When Clyde Beatty used to run into the ring,” he said, “he’d always toss his hat over one of the stakes. He never missed. He was a great showman. He could really sell an act to the people. No one will ever take this show away from him, no one.”
He fidgeted with the red and blue sailor’s watch cap he wore.
“It sure was different back then,” he said. “Now, Bobby MacFergusen, dead; Peter Taylor, gone; Chris Sykes, dead; Emery Stahl, dead; Bert Noyes, dead; Cap Bernard, dead; Johnny Elliot, Joe Walsh, dead. All with Beatty; all dead, all gone.”
I dozed off in my van. When I woke, it was a little before dawn. The sky was the blue-gray of the galvanized buckets in which the clowns had washed their faces the night before. Except for my van, the mall parking lot was deserted.
“Nineteen seventy-seven was a crucial year for us, ” says Bruce Pratt, vice president of national marketing for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. “It was the first year we played the malls. ”
Throughout the sixties and early seventies, circus attendance dropped.
“The late seventies were tough times for circuses, ” Pratt says. “Before 1977 we traveled all over the country.”
The increase in the prices of gas, meat for the animals, and tent canvas, coupled with the lower attendance—especially in cities affected by the loss of steel-industry jobs—threatened to put circuses out of business.