September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
ON THE ROAD DURING THE ERA OF GREATEST PERIL FOR THE ONE INDISPENSABLE AMERICAN SHOW
Last summer, while I was driving my daughter and son from Williamstown, Massachusetts, to Chatham, New York, we passed a billboard with an ad, Crayola red, blue, and yellow, announcing the arrival of a circus. My daughter, who is eighteen, has seen the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden, and both kids have been to the Big Apple Circus. In the early 1950s I went to Ringling Bros., when it still set up tents in fairgrounds.
I was thrilled at the prospect of sitting under a big top and watching acrobats. My kids shrugged and tried to change the subject.
“Don’t you like the circus?” I asked.
“It’s okay, ” my daughter said.
“Okay?” I was flabbergasted. “Okay? But—”
My but bred other buts. . . . I was defending a shadow .
It became dear that circus meant something different to them from what it meant to me.
For them the circus is a historical footnote to a contemporary text that I in turn find obscure. Their text—and context—is a multiverse of media in which the exotic arrives not by a circus train in the middle of the night but through the Internet, the postmodern midway, where the wonders off the world are not tigers and trapeze artists but Web sites.
For me the circus is the smell of sawdust and dung, a trapeze artist in spangles, suspended for a moment in midair, and a flutter in the chest as prodigies parade up Main Street.
But that world is gone. As it should be. After all, the world—and its associations—are remade every generation. In the sixties, Ram was an Indian religious figure recycled by British rock ‘n‘ roll stars—as remote from the ram on my grandparents’ farms as it is from the RAM in my kids’ computer.
Although Ringling Bros. and the Big Apple Circus are wonderful spectacles, neither is the traditional traveling tented circus.
And I knew something about that kind of circus.
I remembered that nearly two decades ago I had wondered if someday I wouldn’t be having this very conversation with my daughter. She’d just been born, and I had left her for a while to travel with a circus. It was 1977, and the outfit I hooked up with, like every other traditional circus, was in trouble. The people I met that summer had a strong sense of their own history, an ever-stronger pride in their professionalism, and a keen sense that they might be the very last generation to do what they did.
Squatting like an orangutan, he rocked back and forth on his haunches and loosely swiped at the ground in front of him, his fingers curled and his knuckles grazing the pavement. Then he stood, walked a straight line, made another military turn, walked another straight line, and stopped again.
On the asphalt he was chalking small polygons and letters, marks that described a funnel-shaped alley leading to a circle as large as a football field. He measured the parking lot with the care of a magician drawing occult pentagrams before summoning spirits. By the following afternoon the funnel-shaped alley would be a midway and the circle would be a big top. Noderer was conjuring up a circus.
Noderer hadn’t slept very much or very well the night before, and living out of a van, he hadn’t had a chance to shock himself awake that morning with a cold shower.
After he had finished chalking where each truck, trailer, and tent pole would go—the king-pole markers (for the center poles) looked like crosshairs in a rifle scope—he came over to my van, which was parked on the lot, and leaned against a fender. I was sitting on the pavement, my back to the front wheel.
“There’s a country club just up the road,” he said. “I’ll bet they have a shower we could use.”
When the circus arrived in a new town, Noderer scouted out free showers. Most of the performers had showers in their house trailers, but the big-top men (the workers who put up and tore down the tents), the propmen, and the butchers (the candy, Italian ice, and popcorn venders who walked up and down the aisles during the shows, trays hanging from ropes looped around their necks) slept in bunks in the large vans, sixteen-wheelers that traveled with the circus. They had no showers. In the morning, when Noderer distributed copies of the local newspaper to the circus people, a service that earned him about a half-buck per week per customer, he spread the word about where to find and how to get into accessible showers.
“Here comes the cookhouse,” he said as a truck painted red and yellow with the circus’s name on its side turned into the mall and drove slowly toward the opposite end of the parking lot, to what would become the back of the circus. The front of the circus—the ticket booth, the midway, the sideshow—would be our side of the lot. “The cookhouse always comes first,” said Noderer.
The truck circled, its headlights flashing as it faced us, until it stopped at a spot Noderer had marked. The headlights snapped off, leaving for a second two red ghost moons suspended in the dark. The engine died. Workers unloaded the dining tent and, walking backward, dragging the canvas by its edges, unfolded and stretched it out. Years ago, at a time when people were both less romantic and less embarrassed about being romantic than we are, these workers were called roustabouts. Shy of the glamour which that name evoked, they now considered themselves simply laborers.
The sound of sledgehammers ringing against the snubbed heads of the metal stakes echoed against the mall walls, each blow a trochaic beat that Noderer unconsciously tapped time to with his foot.
“I was traveling with a circus in Canada,” he said. “Three years. I have a liberty act [performing horses], but my truck broke down. I just joined this circus.” He studied his tapping foot. “I’d like to get back to Canada, get my horse act together.”
He pushed himself away from my van and brushed off the back of his pants.
“I’ll spot you,” he said. “Put your van where I show you, right on the midway. Tomorrow you’ll wake up, there’ll be a circus around you.”
Later that night I climbed into the bed in the back of my van, and propped the pillow so I could watch the parking lot glide into view. More than half the performers owned Airstream trailers, and arriving one by one, lining up side by side, the Airstreams, all silvery and pod-shaped, looked like a fleet of flying saucers mustering on Earth in a 1950s science fiction thriller. Throughout the parking lot people were talking in low tones. John Pugh, then the circus’s general manager, whose trailer was parked next to my van, said out loud in the dark to no one in particular, “Going to rain tomorrow. First wet setup this season. The boys’ll like that.”
Beside my van was the midway, four trucks, parked two by two to form an alley leading to the empty space where the big top would rise. Each red-and-yellow truck looked like a huge box of animal crackers. Their sides advertised wild animals, a Punch and Judy show, a snake trainer, elephants, Zendora (a lightly clad lady who, through an illusionist’s trick, was missing her middle), a magician, an India-rubber girl, a fire-eating clown, popcorn, cotton candy, snow cones, hot dogs, and giant apes. The giant apes were making all the racket.
The seventy-two side poles of the big top, each 12 ½ feet tall and white with a red tip, were laid out, waiting to be used, in a large circle, radiating from where the perimeter of the big top would be, like the rays of a child’s crayoned sun. The larger quarter-poles—thirty red ones 27 feet tall and twenty blue ones 32 feet tall—were also lying on the pavement in place, within the circle of side poles, waiting to be fitted into the grommets in the tent, raised, and guyed to the stakes. The four king poles, each 55 feet tall, were lying with their ends on the marks Noderer had chalked.
When the big top was up, it would enclose an oval 327 feet long and 180 feet wide, and it would be 55 feet tall, 60 feet to the top of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers flags that flew from the king poles. Each of the three rings would be 42 feet in diameter, a size that has been traditional ever since it was measured two centuries ago in England, in Philip Astley’s amphitheater, the first modern circus.
Tim Stinson, the circus’s national director of promotion and public relations, was standing in the midway, watching Sue, one of the elephants, rock back and forth from one forefoot to the other. He was in his mid-thirties, slight, with a direct, friendly gaze. His face had the creases of someone who worked outdoors and squinted into the sun and wind a lot.
After answering an ad in the Washington Post , he had traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for ten years, working in various front-office jobs. He had joined the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus in January, when he got a call asking him to help the circus put together an experimental marketing and promotion strategy.
“Since the beginning of time,” he said, a shaman reciting his tribe’s history, “tent circuses played in some farmer’s field or on fairgrounds. But fields and fairgrounds are too far off the beaten track for people today, and they won’t bother to go. So we have to go to them, to where they gather, where they shop.”
The Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers show was, for the first time, going from mall to mall. Ever since the early 1950s, circuses, unable to compete with television, movies, theme parks, and professional sports, had been playing to smaller and smaller audiences. In 1956 Ringling Bros. tore down its big top for the last time and decided to play only long engagements in large cities inside arenas like Madison Square Garden, which it has played for more than 125 years. The few circuses that still played under canvas, like the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers show, began depending more and more on dates sponsored by the Shriners, the Police Benevolent Association, and the Knights of Columbus, for which they were guaranteed fixed fees. In each city the local sponsor would sell tickets, treating the circus as a fundraising event.
“Last year almost all our dates were sponsored like that,” said Tim. “It’s more secure than cold dates, just going into a town and trying to drum up an audience, but if you fill your tent, it’s not as profitable. And it’s not as exciting. If you know you’ve got a guaranteed ten to twenty thousand dollars coming in, there’s no risk. If there’s no risk, and the circus is just another show, the circus starts dying.”
Stinson and I crossed the lot to the dining tent, where the workers ate. Most of the performers cooked for themselves in their own trailers. Outside the tent were galvanized tubs, one full of hot soapy water, the other full of hot rinse water. Inside the tent the light filtering through the canvas was sepia, and the workers, who were sitting at the tables in white T-shirts and staring, still groggy from sleep, straight ahead into space, looked like figures in turn-of-the century snapshots.
“This year,” Tim said, “almost all our shows are cold dates. We’ll be at malls where the people are. If they want to see the circus, they’ll come; if they don’t, they won’t.” He made it sound like a test of the American character. “It’s a make-or-break situation,” he said.
The side poles were being fitted into grommets around the edge of the big top canvas, and the elephant, Sue, now in metal harness, was dragging them upright. When all the side poles were raised, the tent was concave, an enormous bowl. Sue, hooked to block and tackle, lumbered along, pulling one of the metal rings up a king pole. The big top billowed and massed like a time-lapse film of a thunderhead gathering.
The line was guyed to a stake. Sue, released, rubbed her forehead against the front of one of the sideshow trucks and swiped at the ground with the curled tip of her trunk, the gesture of a crapshooter scooping up dice.
The record time for setting up the big top was two hours and fifteen minutes. But the day was humid. The workers moved slowly from task to task. It wasn’t until noon that the tent was completely raised and the riggers could start hoisting the flying bar for the trapeze act and the iodine-quartz spotlights. One of the big-top crew was pounding in the last stakes, which would guy the inclined wire for the motorcycle act. To put up the circus, Stinson told me, the workers had to drive two hundred to three hundred holes in the asphalt, which, when they left, they had to fill at a cost of about a dollar a hole.
Greg, Stinson’s young cousin, who also had joined the circus in January, wandered up, juggling three hard pink balls, his head nodding like the bobbing head of one of the dogs people put in the back windows of their cars.
“I’m a Coke butcher,” he told me, still juggling as he talked, “but I’m getting an act up. I practice juggling, magic tricks. About everything I see I try. Most of the guys who work the concessions are trying to put together some kind of act.”
“Everybody doubles up,” said Stinson. “Everybody does two or three things. There’s no dead wood in a circus. If everybody doesn’t do his job, you can’t put on the show.
“The level of competence among circus people is pretty high. In an office job you get a guy who’s not bad, not good; he does what he has to, but not too well. You can’t have that in a circus. If the lion trainer isn’t very good at training lions, if the trapeze artist isn’t very good on the trapeze, they’re not going to last long.”
“Gotta go bible up,” said Greg.
Still juggling, he left to help lay the planks for the bleachers, which could accommodate four thousand people.
Sitting on one of the wooden arcs used to form one of the three rings, Frank Gaona, an aerialist with the show, was taping the flying bar with surgical gauze. Three times he started wrapping, stopped, unwrapped the gauze, and, readjusting it, began again. He worked with the concentration of a man building a card tower. He was a member of a famous Mexican circus family. He and his brothers worked for Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers; relatives worked for half a dozen other circuses around the world. It took him twenty minutes to tape the three-foot pole. When he was done, he ran his fingertips along the pole, held it in his hands in front of him, as though he were about to swing up into the tent from where he sat. Then he unwrapped the gauze, realigned it, and started all over again.
Dick Stewart played the calliope with the humdrum air of someone eating his regular lunch at his regular restaurant. He wore dark glasses, which made him look a little sinister, more carnival than circus, although he was an affable, calm man who assisted the performers in the big-top show. He was dressed in a wilted silvery jacket, a ruffled white shirt with a crumpled collar and soiled sleeves, and a lopsided black bow tie.
A small crowd of parents and children gathered in the midway in the drizzle. When it had started sprinkling about one-thirty that afternoon, everyone who was not fixing a rigging or setting up a concession had retreated into a trailer or under the dining tent. The dogs that traveled with the circus all had slunk under the trucks and lay with their chins on their forepaws, staring out at the rain.
Stewart left the calliope and mounted a narrow stage, called a bally, which had been set up in front of one of the sideshow trucks. Behind him were the painted advertisements for Punch and Judy, Miss Serpentina (the snake charmer), and a wild-animal exhibition. Inside the sideshow the elephants were restless. Their trumpeting sounded like heavy furniture being dragged across a floor. Stewart held a microphone in one hand and with the other hand whipped the mike cord out of his way as he strode back and forth.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, believe it or not, there are some people who have never been to an out-door tented circus,” he said, as though the entire circus had become such an oddity that everything, including the big top, belonged to the sideshow.
He had been joined on the bally by a clown with half his face painted white and half left a natural flesh color, a young man with a straggly goatee, a headband, and glasses, who was draped in a bed sheet, and two women dressed in jackets that looked as if they were made out of chain mail, spangly leotards, ripped fishnet stockings, and metallic high-heeled shoes. He asked the shorter of the two women, who had knelt by a small box, “What have you in there, Miss Serpentina? . . . She says she has a boa constrictor.”
Miss Serpentina scooped a snake from the box. It coiled around and dangled from one arm. She stroked its head between the eyes with a forefinger.
“In just about two minutes,” Stewart said, “she is going to take that snake and wrap it around her neck. You’ll see the little lady and her serpent inside the sideshow.” He turned to the other performers on the stage. “The young man here is Shandor Kalif; you’ll see him recline on his bed of nails. You’ll also see a magician and the mysterious India-rubber-skin girl—inside the sideshow in just a few minutes.”
The drizzle had stopped, and the midway was now jammed. Crowds milled in front of the sideshow. Stewart and the others onstage trooped inside, and Count Nicholas, the big-top ringmaster, who also ran the sideshow, took their place on the bally. He was dressed in glossy knee-high black boots, brown jodhpurs, a khaki shirt, and a red windbreaker. He had a thin mustache, the dirty white of wood ashes. As he spieled, he leaned toward the audience and made eye contact with people.
“Wonders of the world and strange people,” he said. “All these oddities are real, nothing faked, stuffed, mummified, or papier-mâché. All real, all alive. Pat the elephant’s trunk, walk right up. Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus spares nothing to bring you these wonders. What your eyes see, you’ll never forget. Step right up.”
But Shandor Kalif—a young man named Paul who had joined the circus when he was out of work four years earlier and saw an ad in the paper for big-top laborers—hardly raised an eyebrow in an audience of est graduates, transcendental meditation practitioners, and dope-smoking inner-space voyagers when he lay on his bed of four-penny nails, an act he performed with the help of nothing more occult than his will.
“They file the nails down some,” he said, “but there’s really no trick to it. It hurts.”
He pulled up his shirt and turned around. His back was covered with tiny scabs and scars, hundreds of little black spots that made his skin look like acoustical paneling.
“The sideshow isn’t what it used to be,” Count Nicholas told me later. “The last real sideshow was in the late thirties. The alligator-skin man. The boy with two heads on one body. Real freaks of nature. We don’t call them freaks now though.”
Ever since the public objected to the word freak when the Barnum & Bailey Circus visited London in 1898, circuses have described the malformed they exhibit as “strange people” and “human oddities.”
“Circuses don’t have freak shows anymore,” said the Count. “People won’t take their kids to them today.”
In the past, when children were born at home, monsters—undetected by X rays, sonograms, and amniocentesis, unaborted, not killed at birth by kind or cruel obstetricians—were both more familiar and, paradoxically, more wondered at. They were revelations of nature, nightmares dreamed into being by God.
If people would pay to see strange animals, wouldn’t they pay to see “strange people”? In 1771 the dwarf Emma Leach displayed herself to the public for a shilling, the first freak show presented in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, the public’s curiosity was being fed by a parade of the misshapen and bizarre: the Toccis Twins, who were born with two bodies on one trunk; Theodore Peteroff, who was billed as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Jonathan Bass, the Ossified Man; midgets, giants, fat ladies, thin men—Hieronymus Bosch characters wending their way through a Winslow Homer landscape.
The public, barricaded behind their normality, could gape with an unembarrassed shared astonishment, which today has been replaced by a scrupulous humanistic horror at any fascination with the abnormal. We want to shield our children not from the knowledge of birth defects but from the knowledge of that part of themselves that would dehumanize the afflicted and categorize them as alien, as creatures to goggle and giggle at.
“Everything’s changed,” said the Count. “When I started with the circus, it was the first time I’d ever seen a lion or a tiger. Now kids see wild animals all the time on television. We don’t even have the circus parade anymore. The last real parade was in 1927.” The heavy wagons did too much damage to the paved streets. “It’s all different from when I joined.”
Count Nicholas, who was sixty-eight years old, said his real name was Angel Nicholas—“Angelo, in Greek” —but when he ran away with Ringling Bros. in 1927, “Everyone started calling me Count, so now my car, my house, my Social Security card, everything is in that name, my name, Count Nicholas.”
In 1945, when Fred Bradna, whom he called the world’s greatest ring-master, retired, the Count was chosen “out of sixteen hundred applicants for the job. I knew I would be; I’d been grooming myself.” In 1955 he left Ringling because “I heard they were going into arenas; the circus wouldn’t be under the big top.” The next year he joined the Clyde Beatty show.
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.”
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.
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 bright morning sun made a screen of the tea-colored big top. The shadow of a flag flickered and waved like a lizard’s tongue, and a flock of birds swooping above the tent cast large surprising batlike shapes on the inside of the canvas.
“ Perdito, perdito, perdito , ” Frank yelled.
He had swung out on the flying trapeze, tried for a triple flip, and missed by inches being caught by Arturo, his brother and David’s father, who swung, hanging upside down by his legs from the catch bar. He fell just as the bird’s shadow soared up toward one of the big top’s peaks.
Frances Padilla stood on the platform, holding a guy wire with one hand, waving her other hand and one foot in graceful ballet sweeps as she sang to herself. She was dark and small with an uncomplicated beauty. During her act, a tightwire performance at the beginning of the show, she moved her body—stretching it, bending it, balancing on the wire, and arching backward to touch her head almost to her heels—as though it were a single muscle. Her taut twists and turns, the little wiggling dance she did on the wire after each trick, reflected better than any other act in the show the connection between risk and eroticism that electrifies the circus. The skimpy costumes the performers wear may have originated in convenience (if you wear something brief and snug, you’re less likely than you are in floppier clothes to get tangled up or trip) and showmanship (the spangled leotards focus the audience’s attention), but they betray a message of sex and danger, the impulse to create life and to end it, which is the hidden moral of the circus.
Frances swung out on the trapeze, somersaulted, and caught Arturo’s wrists. Letting go of Arturo, she dived into the air and bounced into the net. Frank swung out, flipped, dropped to the net, and, grabbing the net’s edge, rolled off backward like a scuba diver going over the side of a boat. Arturo swung, flipped, dropped, and joined the other two. They left the tent, unwrapping the gauze from their wrists and discussing their technique, gesturing, grabbing invisible trapeze bars, suggesting somersaults with quick hunches of their shoulders and circular hand motions.
Little David Gaona climbed back up to the platform, used a horizontal pole to give himself height, and clambered onto a trapeze. He sat, his back against one of the ropes, holding on casually with one hand, one foot on the bar, the other dangling, surveying the nearly empty big top.
Outside the tent, before the elephant races, a local ten-year-old boy scrambled up a slender tree on the edge of the parking lot. He hung upside down from a branch.
“Hey,” he announced, “I’m in the circus.”
A woman a dozen feet away said out loud to herself, “Where’s his mother? He could fall and hurt his back.”
“It’s time you learned to juggle,” he said. “Start with two balls.”
He handed me a second ball.
“Toss one up,” he said. “When it reaches the top of its arc, toss the other one up. That’s right. Try three now.”
I kept dropping one of the balls.
“Practice up against a wall so they don’t roll away,” he said. “When I was a kid, every day before I went to school, I’d practice—even if I was late. Two years ago, when the circus came to Wilmington, Delaware, I just asked if they needed an extra clown. They did. So I got the job. In juggling I don’t really relate to the audience. I just perform and entertain them. In clowning, though, in a circus like this, you always play off the audience.
“You should always be trying something new. The first time we hit a new mall, I run into the toy store and look for anything I can use. For example, I found a great big toy plastic golf club, and I attached a ball on a string to the end of it. Every time you hit the ball with the club, it pops back and wraps the string around you. It’s a good routine. You’re getting frustrated because the ball isn’t going where you hit it. You’re getting wrapped up in the game.
“Clowning is exaggeration and metaphor. You find what’s most real about an action and isolate that element. And exaggerate it. And you find a way of acting out, not just what’s real but what would be real if what was going on in a person’s head suddenly started happening, not just in his imagination but in the physical world. People don’t laugh at the silliness of what you’re doing but at the trueness of it.”
“There are three different types of clowns,” said Jimmy Johnson, who joined the circus a number of years ago —he wouldn’t say how many—as a wardrobe groom with Ringling Bros.
“White-face clown, character clown, and tramp clown. Each clown develops his makeup and style from his own personality. It takes time. Traditionally a new clown doesn’t use color on his face for a few years. And every face is unique. Your makeup is protected by an unwritten law, a sort of copyright.”
The white-face clown, his skin the color of bone and his painted grin as fixed as the rictus on a skull, seems to be beyond any emotion except hilarity. Ever since I was a kid and was terrified by the first white-face clown I saw, by his bloodless and unchanging appearance, I always have imagined white-face clowns to be imitations of death, which, if personified, would have the same pitiless, never-wavering smile as though it found all of life to be a greatly amusing joke. Most clowns on children’s television shows, in children’s literature, and in popular iconography are white-face clowns. Ronald McDonald is a white-face clown. They cozy up to the audience, invite trust, promise by their attitudes to mediate between the audience and the acts in the three rings, and, in doing so, seem to me even more like representations of death, which no doubt will ingratiate itself into our confidence in similar ways.
The character clown usually has a flesh-tone face with features exaggerated by makeup. The egg-headed scholar and the fireman with green hair are character clowns, and they do whatever comic acrobatics are in the show, because, as Jimmy Johnson explained, “The white-face clown is too dignified and the tramp clown too old.”
The tramp clown is a hobo in baggy pants. If a white-face clown’s face is a mask of comedy, a tramp clown’s face is a mask of tragedy, his mouth painted in a perpetual frown. He usually plays the seats and works alone, wandering into the audience or spending five minutes elaborately trying to rid his shoe of an imaginary pebble.
“Otto Griebling was one of the greatest tramp clowns,” said Stinson. “He’d sit on the end of the ring with his finger caught in a bottle, trying to work it free. After a while, even though there’d be all sorts of things going on in all three rings—animal acts, trapeze acts, teeterboard acts—everyone in the audience would be staring at him. He had cancer of the larynx, and he had to have his voice box removed. I saw him a few days before the operation. I asked him how he was feeling. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter; I’m a pantomime clown.’”
“You have to care about people to be a clown,” said Jimmy Johnson. Jimmy, getting dragged out of a miniature pickup truck by a cop, mimics in a broad way what we feel—our annoyance, our fear, our obsequious camaraderie with the patrolman—when we are pulled over to the side of the road and ticketed. He is doing for us what every jester—from the first-known court clown (a Pygmy kept by Pharaoh Djedkare Izezi of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt) to Lear’s fool—did for his king: telling us things about ourselves we don’t want to hear.
The skit ended, and Jimmy Johnson walked out of the big top. As he passed me, he said, “It’s hard work, and it seems harder when you realize all you have to do to get a laugh is to drop your pants.”
I walked back to my van, tossing up and most of the time catching two of the three balls I had bought. After dropping them off in the van, I wandered into the sideshow, where Froggy, a short, heavy man with lemurlike glasses, was feeding Leo, a year-and-a-half-old lion cub; Zelda, a spotted South African leopard the size of a German shepherd; and Mike, a Borneo baboon. When I walked in, Zelda, who had been lapping water out of a tray like a house cat, snapped her head up and stared at me. Her tongue, as pink as bubble gum, lazily licked her nose.
“Come on, Zelda,” Froggy said, “what are you looking at?”
Leo pushed his forehead against the front of the cage so hard that little pads of fur poked through the wire mesh. Froggy scratched Leo, murmuring, “Hey, you like that, huh?”
When Froggy left to get the meat, Leo started pacing in a figure eight and Zelda started leaping high up onto one wall of her cage, landing lightly, and leaping up against the other wall. She stopped, turned to stare at me, and started leaping again.
The other animals in the sideshow seemed to react to the two cats’ restlessness. Victor, the camel, with an almost birdlike movement, turned his head to the right and to the left to check out the scene first with one eye, then the other. Pete, the elephant, starting nodding. Every time he raised his head, the tip of his trunk uncurled like a New Year’s Eve noisemaker; every time he lowered his head, the tip of his trunk rolled up again.
Froggy returned and, using a long fork, stuffed a shank of raw horsemeat, colored purple, phlegm yellow, and black, through a flap in the bottom of Leo’s cage. Leo grabbed the meat with his forepaws, threw it into the air, caught it in his mouth, and slammed it against the side of his cage. Zelda took her hunk to the back of her cage and, stretching out with the meat between her paws, licked it with long strokes as though she were grooming it.
Froggy left the sideshow and went from cage to cage, softly talking to the cats used in Dave Hoover’s animal act. John-John, a golden-maned Nubian lion, paced so furiously that he made the cage rock and its wheels squeak. Radar, a lion named after a character in the television series M.A.S.H. , lay on his side, his two forelegs crossed and his two hind legs crossed. The animals had a smoky, sweet smell almost like that of broiled lobster.
“Looks like you could just reach in and pat them, don’t it, they’re so friendly,” said Froggy. “But a guy once tried that, a vet who got out of Vietnam without a scratch, and he got his arm ripped off his body. And the cat was probably just playing.”
“The worst mauling I ever got was in Texas,” said Dave Hoover, “I got chewed up pretty bad. I’ve been in the hospital thirteen times, mostly only two- or three-day stays. You can’t get sloppy in your act. I was making a mistake earlier this spring. I just caught it a few weeks ago. I was leaving the chair out of reach. A lion charged me. I got back to the chair just in time. You know, those cats don’t make any mistakes, so the trainer can’t make any mistakes.”
Hoover joined the Beers-Barnes Circus, run by his wife’s father (Barnes) and her uncle (Beers), a show that was started in the first decade of the century.
“I thought I was getting a circus,” said Hoover. “My father-in-law thought he was getting a lion act. We were both fooled.”
A year later Hoover joined the Hunt Bros. Circus, and after jumping around among a number of other circuses, he joined the Clyde Beatty show.
“It’s my twelfth year here,” he said. “I had an agreement to replace Mr. Beatty when he retired. He died.”
Hoover and I sat in my van, watching rain bead on the front windshield.
“Wet canvas, hard surface,” said Hoover. “Best acoustic.”
Frances Padilla ran across the back yard of the circus, holding a newspaper over her head to protect her hair from the drizzle. I had a fever that spiked, and everything happening outside the van, in pantomime because the windows were rolled up against the weather, seemed to be a silent film run too slowly. Noderer slogged past. Kay, who played Zendora in the sideshow, came out of the big top, stood for a moment, getting soaked, and then dashed for a trailer, making a little extra hop every time she splashed in a puddle.
“I’ve trained lions and tigers and jaguars and bears,” Hoover said. “Bears are the hardest animals to work with because they don’t have any facial expressions. You can’t tell what they’re going to do. You can read a lion or a tiger, but a bear gives you a deadpan. Polar bears are the worst.
“I start a cat when it’s a year and a half. Out of the cub stage but not mature. They mature about four. The first thing I do is put the cat into the big cage by himself. After two or three days, once it’s used to the cage, I’ll step in and watch the reaction. If he charges, I’ve got a piece of bamboo, and I’ll pop him on the end of the nose. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he won’t charge. If he doesn’t, I’ll sit inside the door, smoke a cigar, and read the newspaper.
“Then I’ll bring in a stand. He’ll avoid it, but after a day or two he’ll get curious and check it out. So I’ll dice up some stew meat, put it on the end of a stick, and, using that, lead him right up to the stand. That’ll take about two days. Now I want to get his forefeet on the stand. I hold the meat on the end of the stick right above him, so he’ll have to put his forefeet on the stand to reach it. Then I’ll put two stands in the cage and hold the meat so he has to climb up on both of them to reach it. Soon he immediately goes to the stand when he enters the ring because he knows he’ll get fed there. After a while you can get rid of the meat because he’s gotten used to following the end of the stick. From then on you just use variations of the basic technique to get him to do different tricks.
“Once the cat’s trained to get up on a stand, I’ll use him in the act for a season just as a scenery cat so he can get used to the traveling, the band, the crowds, the change of water. I get a chance to study the cat and see how smart he is, see what he’s good for. They all can’t be taught to roll a barrel or jump through a hoop. It takes two seasons to get a cat fully into the act.
“European trainers break cats like they were breaking horses. I never use force. I don’t want to break the animal’s spirit. Also, if you use force, if you hit him day after day, after a while he realizes that’s as hard as you can hit. I weigh a hundred and sixty pounds; the average lion weighs five hundred pounds. You’ve always got to keep up the bluff that you’re strong and the lion’s weak.
“Every prop I use helps keep that bluff. If a cat gets out of hand, all I do is flick it with a light whip on the tender spot on the tip of its nose. If he charges, I hold up a chair; suddenly there are four points in front of him, as he loses his train of thought. If I shoot the gun, that also breaks the train of thought.
“It’s not necessary for a cat to be mean to attack a trainer. I’ve had fairly good-natured cats sneak up behind me like a house cat playing, stalking its owner. Clarence was a good-natured cat, never got tough but never mated either. John-John and Pharaoh don’t like to leave their cages and come into the ring. Then, after the act’s over, John-John doesn’t want to leave the ring. Radar goes up into a stretch on two different-size platforms and sometimes won’t get down. Usually a cat gets touchy at about six or seven; you might take him out of the act then. But Clifford is fifteen, sixteen years old and is in perfect physical condition. He just doesn’t do any jumping tricks anymore.
“It’s a good life for the cats. In the wild state their life span is about ten years; they get exercise but not enough food. In a zoo their life span is about fifteen to sixteen years; they get enough food but not enough exercise. In a circus their life span is about twenty to twenty-five years; they get enough food and enough exercise. It’s a pretty good life for the trainer too.”
“Hello, Count,” said Stinson.
The Count tipped his top hat and went into the big top to start the evening show. Soon his amplified voice, echoing under the tent, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. . . .” The band started playing. Hoover, who had been standing in the wings, chewing gum and absently staring at a box of popcorn spilled on the ground in front of him, did a skip and, head down, dashed into the big top. The audience cheered.
The band slid easily from number to number, keeping on top of the two hundred cues in the show, playing paso dobles (quick 2/4 Spanish tunes) for teeterboard acts, waltzes or ballads for flying acts, fast mambos or show tunes for jugglers, plus traditional music (“The Ringmaster,” “Thunder and Blazes,” “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite,” “The Colossus of Columbia”) along with modern popular songs.
“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.
“But like everything else, circuses experience cycles, ” Pratt said. “The economy, birthrates—today we’re beginning to see an upsurge in attendance as baby boomers bring their children,” the echo boomers.
Families may have fewer children, but parents tend to spend more on them, according to Pratt. Although the circus may play more engagements per year—a hundred engagements today compared with sixty to seventy in 1977—each date runs a shorter time—two to three days per engagement today compared with three or four in 1977. And while some costs have continued to increase—insurance is up 200 percent since 1977, for example—those increases are covered by the rise in attendance.
The circus has also benefited from a new marketing strategy, which has limited its range. Now it no longer even plays the Midwest.
” We’re an I-95 show, ” Pratt says. “Florida and north up the East Coast, then back south, over to the Gulf Coast, New Orleans, and back to Florida. ”
And although some kids may resist the idea of going to a circus, once they’re under the big top they fall under the circus’s spell.
“A real lion is not a movie,” Pratt says. “The experience is unlike anything else. They may not know it going in, but they know it coming out. Today it’s not a new golden age, but maybe it’s a silver age. Are things better? In some ways. Are things different? In some ways. We’ve survived.” He pauses. “Nineteen seventy-seven . . . that was the end of an era.”
The first day I had spent with the circus, I had asked Noderer what circus life was like. He told me the following story:
“There was a manager of a circus who had a pet dog. And the circus was doing a lot of one-night stands. Every night the dog would bury a bone outside the manager’s trailer; then it would go inside. While the dog slept, the circus would move on to another town and set up. And a circus always sets up in exactly the same way, so it always looks the same no matter where you are. Anyway, in the morning the dog would trot out of the trailer and go to dig up its bone. No bone. It would sniff around, puzzled, and finally give up. That night it would get a new bone, which it would bury again in the same place outside the trailer. It would go inside the trailer to sleep, the circus would move, and the next morning, no bone. The dog lived a long time. Every night of its life it buried a bone. Every morning it dug where the bone should have been and found an empty hole. ”