In 1998 I moved to Sarasota Florida, a lovely, warm little town on the gulf coast, whose biggest industry is tourism. Big money first came to the area via John Ringling, one of the circus bros. The elephants and small people had put a good deal of change in his pockets in the 1920s and he chose this area to set up a winter camp for the show folk. In fact, the place I lived was on the outskirts of that block of property. I often thought I might find a stray sequent or tiger dropping, but it didn’t happen. John Ringling also built a little summer home to entertain wealthy guests like Edison, Ford, and the like. In the late 1920s John Ringling was one of the wealthiest men in the world. When he died in 1936 he had only $311 in the bank. “So it goes.” (Kurt Vonnegut)
But Sarasota was already established as a place for having a wonderful time, wishing for friends to be here on the back of postcards with pictures of pink flamingos, of which there are none here. Though mostly hidden now, the circus subculture still exists here in second and third generation show folk in trailer parks and clown costume shops. If you go to the right places you can over hear reminiscing conversations about sideshow performers too hung over to perform or of the time the lions got out (FYI – there are some codes in the circus world pertaining to this kind of situation. So just know, if you are ever at a circus and the band suddenly breaks into a rendition of “Hold That Tiger” RRUUUNNNN!!!)
There is a resurging circus culture slowly regaining ground through the leadership of a not for profit called, Circus Sarasota, founded by Dolly Jacobs, daughter the most famous clown in the world, Lou Jacobs who I know you would recognize – pinkface, big white eye lids, big Bozo mouth (Lou was the original) teeny tipsy little hat on top of a cone head. Dolly and her South African born husband Pedro Reis started the organization 1997. They are ‘circus folk’ with credentials as long as a stilt walkers legs.
I worked for Circus Sarasota as project manager and had several conversations with Pedro. He had been infatuated with the circus since a boy and toured with the European companies eventually playing Madison Square Garden where the ‘accident’ happened. Union rules there state that only union workers can set up equipment. That went against all of Pedro’s years of training. Just like an actor checks his/her props before a show to prevent the need to say BANG with a finger gun, a circus aerialist needs to check their ropes and connections to save, not a moment of embarrassment, but their very life. But on opening night at the Garden, the union said no to his personal equipment check. Pedro used to perform waaay up there in the cramp-your-neck section and his big finish was to leap from way up there, with no net, and land gracefully on his feet. It was all about the bungee cords secretly attached to his ankles which he released a second before he touched ground. On this night he lept, but the bungee cords had not been attached up there at the top and he fell to certain death. Except he lived. He suffered two very broken legs and was never able to ‘fly’ again. Of course I asked if he sued and he said no. You probably never heard of him, but now you have.
How did I come to run away to the circus? I originally moved to Florida for a couple reasons. One is, do you remember I said I lived in Buffalo???? And the second reason was that I was a partner in a business theater training company. We had some contracts with Disney World in Orlando. Oh, how I would love to drop some names here, but we are legally bound to keep secrets. But let me tell you this: I know how many fingers Mickey REALLY has. And I know why Donald doesn’t wear any pants. Nuff said.
I got duped out of the partnership so for ten years I toured schools libraries and festivals in ten counties with my company, the Open Circle Players. I worked as a Teaching Artist for the Sarasota County Arts Council and Very Special Arts of Florida. Summers are slow in Sarasota and all the sidewalks are rolled up while the locals search out some cool shade somewhere up north. I took the temporary job with Pedro and Circus Sarasota. They received a grant from a local foundation to teach basic circus skills to developmentally disabled adults who attended Loveland, a sort of day camp. Disabilities included Downs syndrome and mental retardation combined with cerebral palsy. There was a separate little house for seniors next to the main building and I remember one client who had suffered a severe head injury while a soldier in the Korean War. The only thing he could say was “Hot diggity”. On rare occasions it became “Hot diggity dog”. He had a fiance before the war, but on his return, seeing his disability, she left. What would you do? The war veteran was now in his early 70s and very healthy and spry; one of our most talented and enthusiastic participants. Hot Diggity.
Twice a week for three months I showed up with a couple professional circus artists who would teach juggling, clowning, magic and some tumbling for the robust. If you have been waiting for the name to drop, here it comes. You may not have heard of Jackie LeClair, but you may have seen him him alone, center ring at a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus, or teaching at clown college, or maybe in Moscow, Argentina – surely some circus event you’ve seen had Jackie Leclair as part of it’s presentation. I know! Did you see C.B. Demille’s 1952 Best Picture Oscar winner, “The Greatest Now on Earth”? Okay, that was Jackie stunt doubling as an aerialist. Now in his retirement he serves as “Ambassador of Mirth” for Circus Sarasota.
He mostly wears a way too big white suit, big shoes of course, hair sticking out and thin red lips. Sometimes he’ll glue on a red nose, but it was really messing up his skin so often he would settle for a red blush nose. Jackie is a very soft spoken man but will share stories when mildly prompted, of his birth in 1929 and youth spent in a traveling circus caravan, washing laundry in whatever stream they camped near, with the other traveling circus families. He talks and I conjure up mental pictures of colorful gypsy wagons.
I learned two extremely important, very basic life lessons from Jackie. Here is how the first came to be: He didn’t offer all the training at Loveland. He was in his 80s and was supposed to be retired. He and Chuck-O, the other clown, did a half hour show for the seniors in the little house next to the main building where the Korean War vet and about 10 others spent their days. Jackie’s style is very low key, blank-faced befuddlement. When he begins his schtick, you have to go with him immediately. Most of it was without words. The things he and Chuck-O did got sillier and sillier, dumber and dumber. 15 minutes in and you just know they’re not going to get it right, so stop expecting Shakespeare. Give it up. I unwittingly surrendered to these two clowns in front of me and there was nothing left to do but laugh. And laugh. They played us like violins. The music we played back to them was belly laughs. They caught me with my pants down…well actually they were the ones dropping drawers… but still, I couldn’t have been more surprised when I felt laugh tears on my cheeks.
After the gig, packing up the car Jackie ran through the show in his head and because I was next to him I heard it. Remember this guy’s background for a minute. Touring the world, all kinds of honors and Halls of Fame, performing for 80 years. You might expect, or at least I could very well expect a Krusty the Clown, get me out of here type of attitude. Nope. Instead he asked me if I thought the clients liked it and reflected that the timing on the the chair gag was off. And maybe the picture frame gag should come before the flower gag to make the show run smoother.
Here is the learning. This review of a gig is quasi normal for performers. But I had never witnessed it from an 80year old. It was not a neurotic, self-loathing, or emotional fishing expedition for acceptance or any other unbalanced reaction. It was simply and majestically caring in a consummately professional manner. He was able to gauge where the act needed tweaking by the reaction of the crowd. Jackie cared, cared about what he did. Think of the platitude “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” The man lived this. He is a truly honest presence in the deepest sense of the word.
A while later Circus Sarasota mounted its annual six week, one ring show under the big top. I got ring side seats for the February run. That’s the perfect time for a circus in Sarasota because mostly everywhere else was off season for circus folk so a lot of good acts were available. And with Pedro and Dolly’s pedigree, the stars would come. They were ‘circus’. Before the music and the horses and the ringmaster turned it all on, Jackie entered the ring, alone with no announcement, as if wandering in off the street in the baggie white suit. Oh dear. He is confused. He makes mistakes. Little chuckles sprinkle the audience. People slowly complete their conversations and look to see what is going on in the ring. Each gag brings a louder response. The demure little man, in desperate need of a tailor, looks to the audience as if to ask, could possible explain why the task he has just attempted has gone so wrong. Is it okay to laugh at this guy? Except we have no choice. We are being played. Every look, every movement, every pause, executed to perfection. Seriously, my stomach ached. I can’t laugh any more. Oh yes I can! That is the second lesson.
Krusty: Uh-huh. Charity, eh? What’s my cut? Nothing? I make more than that takin’ a “schwitz.”
Bart: Tell him it will count towards his community service.
Krusty: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. All right, I’ll do it. [groans] Boy, swipe one pair of Haggar slacks and you’re payin’ for it the rest of your life.
Still in Sarasota on September 11, 2001, as I was driving to the copy store to make up some brochures for my theatre company, I missed the turn for a new short cut I thought I would try – a not-quite-singular occurrence as my son will attest after years of finding delightful unexpected time together in the car. This day my extended route took me past the Sarasota Airport off University Parkway. A quarter mile on either side of the entrance to the terminal and the driveway to the terminal were literally filled with police cars – state, county, local – each with lights flashing – yellow, blue, red, white, no timed sequence to the rolling and flashing. WTF. Oh, right, Bush was in town. Gonna visit the school my friends works at. This really seems a bit over the top even for a presidential visit. The flashing lights – think epileptic seizure waiting to happen; think very bad acid flashback. Driving past all this, I tried to appear pleasant to the uniformed officers, but not too pleasant. Is my registration up to date?
Just minutes before, the second plane had struck and as I drove, the President was reading “The Pet Goat” and not stopping for almost a half an hour, a crucial period in which he may have been able to make split second decisions that might have saved lives. But we’ll never know. Reports on the radio were just starting to come in as I pulled into the copy store parking lot. The two owners were anxiously trying to get a TV hooked up. We heard on the radio that a third plane had flown into the Pentagon. All was dark then, inside each one of us.
I have often wondered why I called my son right there from the store. I found the answer in science years later. It seems the fight or flight response is a particularly male activity. When females were finally studied it was discovered that in similar situations a woman will gather the family; pull all the chicks under her wings. I called my son and my sister whose daughter was a flight attendant.
Somewhere in there we heard Airforce One take off – the last plane we would hear for days, or was it weeks. We ran outside to take a look. It was big. It meant something much more in that moment, though I can’t say what.
I got my brochures copied while we were waiting for news of the fourth plane. I made the decision to continue with my life, my business. To stop would have been submissive to whatever was going on. I chose not to surrender. The photo on the cover of the brochure was crooked. Not even close to being important. Just went home and glued my eyeballs to the TV as the whole nation watched.
Not to leave it there, I did get quite close to Obama during the campaign. I truly believe he heard me yell good luck to him.
So that’s it so far. I have many more miles to rack up on my cringe-o-meter. Thanks for reading all this.
We outgrow love like other things And put it in the drawer, Till it an antique fashion shows Like costumes grandsires wore. Emily Dickenson