Dear Editors: Sorry, cannot meet deadline on this story, have run away with the circus. You warned me, I know. This was a dangerous assignment; we all knew I might become a casualty. Hang around backstage with circus folk long enough and the dazzle, the danger, the opportunity to wear sequins all day, it all just sucks you right in.
It began on Clown Alley. I was making a few notes near the baggy-pants racks . . . and then I saw him. He was broad-shouldered, he was tall. Very tall. In fact he was so stilts. Maybe it was his soulful gaze that won me, big blue eyes wide open to the brow-bone; maybe in was that crazy cockeyed grin of his, extending sensuously from ear to ear. I was instantly a fool for the kind of dresser he is: love those purple suspenders, knee-length ties, spangled top-hat. It was hard to ignore the sports car parked nearby as well, a nifty little racing model, two feet by three. He walked toward me purposefully -- on his hands -- and I melted.
Suddenly we were no longer along. The rest of his family was filling the alley to warm up before show-time: 28 clowns flexing, somersaulting, adjusting their noses, 28 clowns rambling around in size 60-plus trousers and tennis shoes wider than waffles, rolling out the unicycles, tossing the juggling pins: a wild pastiche of court jesters and cartoon characters, mimes and minstrels and Marx Brothers movies. I could feel their energy flipping all around me, charging the air. I could smell the talcum powder used to set makeup, and the grease-paint, and the sawdust, and beyond in a haze of light, I could see the tiers of children out in the audience waiting for this crew to race out into the arena, tumble about like puppies, chase and flirt and spin cartwheels, thwack one another to the floor, and maybe drop their pants.
I remember being one of those children, sitting in Madison Square Garden clutching a paper cone of cotton candy and hoping I'd get to take home one of the pet chameleons being sold in the aisles along with the crackerjacks and the big four-color programs. I also remember having a peculiar reaction to the clowns. Emmett Kelley, peering through the bars of the cage he rode in, looked so sad to me I burst into tears, "Dumb," said the friend sitting next to me. "Real dumb." I had myself figured for a melancholy kid anyhow, but I've discovered other adults who, as children, also found circus clowns mysteriously sad or even downright mean, pushing and shoving and clobbering one another into the sawdust. But it's never too late: at long last two clowns can make me laugh, and moreover entrance me. Maybe the older you get the more clowning you need.
Think back, dear editors, if you think I've gone round the bend, running off with the circus this way. It's a funny thing: everyone I know can recall early feelings about the circus, memories that come back clear, uncomplicated, immediate. Say "circus" and you get an instant associative reply:
"The clowns," a friend from a small town remembers, "And the smell of fresh-cut grass where they pitched the tent."
"Popcorn. Clowns. Pinwheels you could blow on, confetti," another recalls.
"Red. Light. Everything sparkling, especially the clown-suits." That voice still holds wonder.
"Manure." That voice, a bit more matter-of-fact.
Behind the evocative magic of this circus there are numbers, facts. Three hundred human performers, 200 animal performers, all professionals. Two show units, the Red and the Blue, traveling the country on different routes. For this, the Red Unit, 250 nights on the road aboard a 37-car show-train. Forty-nine cities played in this 109th season of The Greatest Show on Earth, bringing you The Golden Gladiator of Jungle Giants, Gunther Gebel-Williams, the Hair-Hanging Heroics of acrobat Marguerite Michelle, the Flying Farfans, the aerial feats of Dolly Jacobs and Duo Evelyn, the wire-walking Carillo Brothers and much Much MUCH MORE!!!
And the clowns. Ringmaster Kit Haskett sends in the clowns again and again, to catch careening baby buggies, to scramble into a fire truck, to roll and flip and smacko-kiss the kids in the front row. Back in their Alley, the clowns dash in between numbers, throw down fistsful of seeds and raisins for quick energy, mop makeup, grab props, chase out again. Halfway through the show they still look magical to me, not melted, and I still feel like Dorothy in Oz.
This alley is a place of transformations worthy of the Wizard of Oz himself. The Postal Clerk became Frosty Little, Boss Clown. The student at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, the speech pathologist, the poet become new personas with new walks, new shapes, new gags. And maybe with new outlooks, says Lou Jacobs, in his 55th year as a clown, "I feel younger than ever." Ranging in age from 18 to 76, the clowns come from Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts; Genoa, Nebraska; Tacoma, Washington; several are graduates of Clown College in Venice, Florida. "I can't imagine a job that would be more fun," says Frosty Little. "But at the same time it's hard work, kind of like putting together a Japanese jigsaw puzzle."
And so, dear editors, with the weight of all this expert experience and opinion to back me up -- don't laugh at my new life. At least not until you see me out there in the arena balancing on my wire-rimmed glasses. That's right, I just might decide that it isn't enough to be a Clown Groupie. I just might try out for Clown College. I just might make it too.
And in the meantime, there's Stilts here (not his real name) to keep me happy.