BALTIMORE native Ted McRay was working the lion and tiger act of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus when Kenneth Feld, legendary owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, spotted him from the audience. Practically overnight, the 43-year-old McRay was transformed into "T.M. the Gator Guy" and given top billing in the Greatest Show on Earth, now having an extended run in the Washington area.
McRay shares the spotlight with six alligators that weigh as much as 300 pounds and snakes so large that grown men and women cover their eyes when they see McRay and his animals coming. And if you're trying to picture those snakes, think bigger. These are 17-foot-long, 120-pound Burmese pythons. Not exactly the garden variety snake McRay grew up collecting in the woods near his family's home. But it was in his urban hometown that he discovered "another world, one that was different and exciting and also a little scary."
The self-described "wild one" in his family, McRay once bought a boa constrictor without telling his parents. He sneaked it into the house and hid it in one of his mother's decorative vases. During his teenage years, he stowed away on a plane to Jamaica. While his family was focused on getting him home, he was more concerned about whether the snake would still be in the vase when he returned. It was.
When McRay wasn't living on the edge, he was home watching "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" and Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic specials on television. "My childhood is where I got my love and respect for nature and animals, and that allows me to do the type of work I do," McRay said during a recent phone interview from Cincinnati, where he was performing.
His cousin, Cedric Walker, the founder of the Universoul Circus, first recruited McRay to go into the ring with lions and tigers. On his first day of training, McRay sustained a "little" tiger bite in the neck. "I say 'little' because it didn't kill me," he says. The tiger bite is not his only work-related injury. One of the Ringling Bros. gators took off his thumb, an incident that led co-workers to speculate that T.M. actually stands for "Thumb Missing."
He rides into the arena on a motorcycle wearing nothing more than a Tarzan-style loincloth and boots. "I'm the least dressed person in the entire cast of 99 people," laughs the 5-foot-7, 165-pound McRay, who stays in shape by lifting those 100-pound snakes.
He is reluctant to describe the act itself. Unlike the star horses, which can be trained to perform in unison, "reptiles do not perform on command," McRay says. Still, "snakes and alligators have this mythical hold on people," he says. "There is nothing that prepares you for it. Seeing is believing."
In describing the audience's reaction to his act, he cites a line from the ringmaster's song:
"Simply give in to each ooh, ahh and wow."
"When I pull a snake out of the box and hear the audience gasp, the emotional reaction to what the audience is seeing is palpable," says McRay. "That's the whole magic of the show."
RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS -- The 132nd edition features longtime audience favorites as well as several new acts, including "Crazy Wilson," who rides the "Wheel of Death"; acrobat Sylvia Zerbini, who hangs from a silver loop high above the center ring and then stars in an equestrian act; and contortionist Mei Ling, the "Empress of Equilibrium," who does a hand-balancing act on a Harley motorcycle. The show runs through Sunday at the Patriot Center, 4500 Patriot Circle, Fairfax. It continues Wednesday through April 21 at the D.C. Armory, 2001 East Capitol St. SE (Metro: Stadium-Armory). Bilingual performances (Spanish-English) will be held on April 20. The hands-on "Three-Ring Circus," included in the price of a ticket, begins one hour before showtime. Tickets are $11-$40 from Ticketmaster, 202-432-7328, 703-573-7328 or www.ticketmaster.com. The circus's Web site is located at www.ringling.com.