Sex Death And Ronald Mcdonald


Around his neck the Count wore a golden whistle that Cecil B. De Mille had given him for his technical advice during the filming of The Greatest Show on Earth .

“Jack Carson’s brother played me in that movie,” he said, starting an old-fashioned American brag of the Davy Crockett “I’m a ring-tailed roarer” type; “I’m the only traditional ringmaster left. The others sing or don’t wear a top hat and boots or don’t blow whistles or follow some fixed script. I don’t just direct traffic in the big top. I play to the audience. I make up my own words to describe the acts, invent my own language. Fantabulous. Astronominous. I’m flamboyant. There’s no other ringmaster left like me.”

At the sideshow entrance, Pops, an old man who collected tickets, was telling Julius, a former physical education teacher who had run away with the circus to become a clown and who also collected tickets: “Look, if there’s a family of twelve and they’re all crowding by and you see only six or seven tickets, let them in. You’ve got to play ball too. They’re poor.”

I HAD EXPECTED TO BE ENTERTAINED by the big-top show. I was thrilled. The hazy light under the tent, the crescents of blue sky where the canvas was ripped, the animal droppings as black and shiny as polished ebony, the smell of damp fur and sawdust, the murmur of the audience, the echoing clang of the kids running up and down the metal aisles of the bleachers: All the sensations of an afternoon visit to the circus seemed as familiar and comforting as the sounds and smells of my parents’ home. I had been wandering through the circus, pen poised over my notebook, dutifully looking for social and historical significance in the show. But when Count Nicholas came through the flap, wearing his black top hat and his red swallowtail coat, carrying a pair of white gloves in one hand, and, standing in front of the band box, blew his whistle, and started with “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages . . . ,” I realized that I had found in the circus fragments not of some mythical American past but of my own youth.

Everything about the circus evoked memories. The circus was one of the precincts of childhood. It was an emotional demilitarized zone, where a parent and a child could meet. Whatever disagreements I had with my parents, I knew that the excitement I felt under the big top was pretty much what they had felt under the big top when they were children. And they knew that the wonder they had felt was pretty much what I felt. The circus was a shared pleasure.

LOOKING AT THE AUDIENCE , fewer than two thousand people in stands that could seat twice that number, I knew that what Stinson had said was true: The circus—at least the old-fashioned traveling tented circus like the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers show—was in danger of extinction. The child my wife was carrying might never know what it is like to sit under a huge rippling tent and watch the acts displayed in the three rings. The strategy of playing malls, Stinson had admitted, was a make-or-break proposition. They could not afford to fail; and, for my child’s sake, I didn’t want them to fail.

But—if I was honest—I wanted the mall strategy to succeed more for my sake than for that of my child. If she never went to an old-fashioned circus, if we didn’t share the same memories, if we didn’t have that common reference point, I would—in some odd way—be left behind in a world of the disappearing past. Or part of me would. Perhaps every generation, watching certain customs vanish and new customs appear, feels it is producing a race of aliens, but I was new to this feeling, which both amused and unnerved me.

I am sure my parents were disconcerted when, during the sixties, I approvingly called myself and those in my college class who also were experimenting with psychedelic drugs “freaks” (as though we had thought of ourselves as being in the cultural sideshow; we certainly were confident that if we were, we freaks would soon invade and take over the big top). Freak meant something to us that it did not to them.

And I know that I was disconcerted when I heard a kid sitting next to me in the bleachers cry out, when a clown waddled into view, “There’s Ronald McDonald.” Ronald McDonald.

The mythology of my childhood (in which clowns were Joeys or Bozos, elephants were Jumbos, lions were Leos or Simbas, and monkeys —at least for those who had The Jungle Book for a bedtime treat—were the BandarLog) was being replaced by a new, not particularly evocative pantheon: Saturday-morning-television cartoon characters, Sesame Street Muppets, and, this being the season that Star Wars introduced wookies and Jedi Knights to the world.


The bond that the circus’s closing would sever connected me not just to our country’s past and my own childhood but also to my children and the future. As I listened to the kid next to me call, “Ronald McDonald,” while my fancy shouted, “Bozo,” I felt like an aerialist, tumbling through the decades from 1945 to the early twenty-first century, without a net, secure in—and frightened by—the knowledge that at the end of my flip, I will reach out—and there will be no one there to catch me.

The Hidden Moral of the Circus