“Wow. Just wow. I’m in shock,” says my friend LaRena at her digs in Oita, Japan, where she lives and works as a clown for Kinoshita Circus.
LaRena is talking about the news she heard today that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be closing the show forever in May after 146 years of continual touring. The announcement came directly from members of the Feld family, which has operated the circus since 1967.
“People are devastated,” she says. “Around 800 people just found out they are about to lose their jobs and they are still expected to show up to work with a smile on their face.”
I wonder if there was any warning and I think about some of the possible feelings that might be rippling through the circus community. But, there are some things that are difficult to imagine—a blind spot in the empathy lens—if you haven’t been there and lived the life of a circus performer.
Around 6:30pm we began hearing rumors from friends on the Blue Unit (our sister show, currently in Miami) that there was a full-cast meeting scheduled for 10pm that night. This was highly unusual…to hold a company meeting so late, and in the middle of a busy weekend of shows.
We then found out that members of the Feld family were present with the Blue Unit in Miami. We began to speculate. What kind of meeting could this be? Did it have anything to do with us (the Red Unit)?
To our great surprise, Juliette Feld announced to us that both Ringling touring shows would be closing by May of this year. I think we were all expecting something bad….I don’t think we were expecting for all 800 of us to lose our jobs, or for the 146-year history of Ringling Bros to be dropped like a worthless rag.
To be fair, I am currently angry and upset about losing a job that I cared deeply about. It is not fair for me to say that the Felds are throwing Ringling away (that IS how I feel at the moment though, not gonna lie). After all, they spent insane amounts of their own money trying to keep it going. They spent ridiculous amounts of time defending their company against animal activists. But it was not enough. People have shown that they do not care to see this particular circus any more, and that’s what really matters.
So, how do we feel. I saw people crying, I heard a lot of “f*ck you”’s, I know that tomorrow when I have to go to work I will see lots of heartbroken men women and children, I know that there are some who will not even bother coming to work and will just vanish in the night. We are now expected to continue working through May, and I’m sure many of us will try to make it that long. But really, who is going to want to come to work after this? How are we to smile for audiences?
Understand that for many circus people, they are born into this life. It is more than just a job, it is all they have known, and all their parents have known, for generations. For their whole lives. They know nothing else. Those people did not only hear, “You’ve lost your job” tonight. They also heard, “You’ve lost your home.” ~ Megan O’Malley
At this point I should bring up the elephants that are no longer in the room.
Over the years animal rights activists and organizations have steered public opinion away from supporting the inclusion of elephants in the circus. So much so that in March of 2015 it was announced the elephant circus acts would be retired, thereby ending the century and a half tradition of performing pachyderms at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Megan O’Malley has some choice words for those organizations, which you can read in the full text of her Quora post.
Four years ago I took my daughter to the Ringling show Dragons and we stayed overnight in the circus train. We were allowed to hang out backstage and in clown alley before the show. I spoke with some of the performers and most of all with my friend whom I believe to be a person of integrity.
When I got together in November with LaRena I asked her about the circus hierarchy—which group of performers is at the top and which group at the bottom. Without hesitation she told me the elephants were at the very top, above all, and they were given the utmost respect by all performers.
And I believed it.
Hey, I don’t like to see animals in cages, either. it seems like jail to me. It also bothers me when people make animals beg for food. I totally get the empathetic response that drives some people to imagine the worst about the lives of circus animals. It’s second nature to project the same desire for liberty on them that we wish for ourselves. Who knows, maybe they do want their freedom.
It certainly seems the elephants are being well cared for in their retirement, if we accept the report of this story from National Geographic.
I knew going into this piece that there would be divisiveness and oppositional opinions. As much as I wish the story was purely about the experience of a clown in the circus, I have no control (nor would I wish to assert such control) over the myriad opinions of a broad readership.
I do hope we can work together in the interest of positive and truthful advocacy for both the humans beings and the animals that have grown up in the circus and are now faced with dealing with the repercussions of broken hearts and broken families.
So, about this family…
LaRena spent six years running around the ring and acting the fool with a very close-knit family of jesters for The Greatest Show on Earth and she loved her job so it was a difficult decision for her to leave.
But the offer to join Kinoshita and live in Japan for a fifteen month replacement gig for a fellow clown on maternity leave was too seductive to turn down.
One more question about the circus closure, and it’s a classic that you hear for every significant event in the lives of those for which it matters most:
“Where were you when you first heard about Ringling Bros closing?”
“I just finished my first show of a three show day and popped into the alley for my 10 minute break before come-in of the second show,” she writes. “I plopped on the couch and grabbed my phone. Oooooh messages! Yay! I open the first one from my friend Amanda. It has a link to an unknown newspaper saying Ringling is closing with a message. The second is from my dear friend and former clown partner Lindsey B. Gillette with a link directly to the Ringling Facebook page. S**t. This must be true.
I didn’t have any time to process, I still had two shows to do today and the messages are pouring in and the Facebook feed is blowing up. So I’m processing now after a FaceTime drink date with my circus brother Oscar so neither of us had to drink alone.”
I can’t imagine how my friend feels but I don’t have to because she tells me.
“Those of us who don’t work there anymore are also devastated,” she says. “For many of us, Ringling was where we got our start in the professional industry, it’s where we found our best friends, where we found our family.”
“We have sawdust in our veins forever.”
Okay, it’s Monday night at 6:33 and we’re back!
The following conversation took place (mostly) in my writing lair at 336 Journal Central. My dialogue is in italics.
So, Rosie McQueen’s last show at Ringling Brothers was called Circus Extreme. What was so extreme about it?
We had extreme sports elements. BMX bike riders and parkour gymnasts.
Is it similar to the motorcycles in the steel cage act I saw in Dragons?
That was actually much more extreme than BMX bike riders, but they added it because of the BMX riders in the X Games, so it was more relatable I guess.
Did you have to change your clown act for the extreme show?
Yeah, we do different clown acts for different shows, based on the overall theme of and plot point the director wants to cover. So, this time around we did a spoof of the Mongolian strong men we have in the show. There’s a through-line in the plot that the main characters are collecting these jars from around the world that hold a different circus treasures in them. So, in the second act they get all the jars mixed up so the clowns are opening up all the jars trying to find the one that has the tiger roar in it and different jars have different funny things that happen in them. Like one of the jars opens and you hear a toilet flush and there’s a leaf blower and toilet paper inside so when we open it up all this toilet paper comes flying out—all these funny little sight gags as we try to find the tiger jar.
It’s interesting that you’re using terms like plot and through-line—theatrical terms we used when we were in theatre classes together in college.
Yeah, but we never know if it’s going to come through. The newest show – the one I’m not in — has the biggest plot line they’ve ever had. There’s always a concept for a show and sometimes after a show I’ll explain it to friends and they’re like, “oh, that was what was going on, oh that’s cool,” so it isn’t always totally clear to the audience.
Maybe it’s the spectacle happening all around that makes it difficult for people to keep up with the story. It sounds like the structure of the Ringling Brothers show has been somewhat influenced by story driven circus shows like Cirque du Soleil.
Yeah, I would say yeah. Back in the day, circus was just circus and there was three rings of spectacle going on all the time: Trapeze flyers and acrobats and just act after act and there wasn’t a plot.
And then along comes Cirque…
…and they’ve been around for over 20 years now and their plot is sometimes a bit existential and hard to follow as well…
…almost Brechtian I remember thinking when I first saw them…
…uh huh. But I think because they have a storyline and a concept it’s influenced a lot of other circuses.
Y’know, I saw my first Ringling Brothers show when I was almost seven and I remember being so fascinated by it that I wanted to hit the books at the library and find out more about the animal and human performers. Did you do a lot of research into the history of Ringling.
I just learned over time on the the job. I’m definitely not a circus expert or a circus historian but a lot of other clowns I work with have grown up going to the circus and are really passionate about it and know a lot about the circus. You can show them a picture of a clown from thirty years ago and they can tell you who it is, what year they graduated from clown school, if they ever had a different costume on the road, what gags they were in, and so forth. So, I’ve picked up a lot over the years but I wouldn’t say I’m an expert.
I’ve gotta say, I was surprised by the large number of female clowns in your show, which I think is great because I have a daughter and equality is important to me. The reason I was surprised was because when I saw my first Ringling show at the Cow Palace in 1971 I don’t recall seeing any female clowns.
There were very few female clowns in those days. And, in that era of clowning, I’d say about half the number of girls that got into clown college with the idea of getting into Ringling afterward would pick a very unisex look for their clown costumes because they thought they would have a better chance getting in if they looked like the male clowns. So, there may have been girl clowns in the show and you didn’t even realize it because they might have been out there in a vest and baggy pants and a short wig and a bowler hat just like all the guys.
Yeah, that sounds exactly like the sort of old fashioned attitude I remember when I was a boy. Even though the seventies was the era of women’s lib, and you would think those female clowns would be able to break through the glass ceiling of the Big Top in their own feminine style instead of slipping on the patriarchal banana peel and falling back into the fifties, it did take quite awhile for women in those days to trust they could be themselves in any job situation.
Yeah, well, now they want girls to look like girls and you pretty much have to be a girly girl in a dress that’s pink—which is good for me, because I like that—especially if there are only one or two girls. They really want you to stand out as a girl.
I’m sure you know that Ringling Brothers clown Peggy Williams was the first female to attend and graduate from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1970, so maybe I did see her at my first circus forty-five years ago.
Yes she was. And she still works for the company! I was at her 40th anniversary.
Yeah, I’ve read she’s kind of a big deal in the clown community. Especially after being inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1998. I like this Brunhilda clown costume she’s wearing. It makes me think fondly about Bugs Bunny in What’s Opera, Doc?
Hey, you’re pretty handy with those circus facts.
Well, I googled “first female Ringling clown” in the future. It’s January 16th, 2017 as I write this. I told you I’ll be playing fast and loose with time in this article.
Well, stop it! And stop inventing words for past me to say in the future.
Sorry, but you started texting me from Japan while I was transcribing our conversation from November 28th, so I’m multitasking. But, I do want future you to stick around because we need to chat about your Kinoshita Circus experience for Part 3 of this article.
Okay. But, I’ve gotta start my make up for the first show. Might have a few minutes in 30 minutes or so. If not, I’ll get to it after my first couple of gag spots.
A gag is a clown act. So, it’s our spot in the show to perform. I’ve got three in Act One and then a long break. I’m still future me, aren’t I?
Yes, but those will be your words. And, I should point out that even though I’m from the future for this past conversation you are actually in the future during my present conversation with you right now since your time zone is seventeen hours ahead of me.
So, from your perspective you’ll be getting back to me yesterday.
to be continued…
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