THE LAST DAYS OF THE RIN­GLING BROS

Cape Breton Post - - Perspective - BY MICHELLE R. SMITH

An ele­phant stretches its trunk through a win­dow to soothe a sick child. A woman gives birth and three months later is back per­form­ing on the high wire. A han­dler of big cats weeps as the beasts lope out of the ring for the last time.

These sto­ries could come only from cir­cus per­form­ers, and in par­tic­u­lar one fa­mous cir­cus, the one im­mor­tal­ized as “The Great­est Show on Earth”: the Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus, which is hang­ing its hat for the last time this week­end.

While the show goes on in other cir­cuses around the world, Rin­gling is spe­cial. The size, the spec­ta­cle and the his­tory - stretch­ing back to P.T. Bar­num and his trav­el­ling mu­seum in the 1800s - set it apart.

One of Rin­gling’s two trav­el­ling cir­cuses is sched­uled to per­form its fi­nal show Sun­day in New York. The other closed this month, in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Is­land, and with it, the end to a way of life few others have ex­pe­ri­enced. The As­so­ci­ated Press was al­lowed to ob­serve it ex­ten­sively.

Rin­gling is the last cir­cus any­where to travel by train, and while liv­ing on a train can be tough, the ac­com­mo­da­tions are con­sid­ered a ben­e­fit that other cir­cuses don’t of­fer. Perks in­clude the “Pie Car,” the mile-long train’s din­ing op­er­a­tion, as well as a cir­cus nurs­ery and school for the many chil­dren whose par­ents make the cir­cus what it is.

Some ob­ser­va­tions from the home the per­form­ers leave be­hind, from the unit’s last cir­cus bap­tism, their fi­nal times goof­ing around on “Clown Al­ley,” and other mo­ments the world will never see again:

THE BOSS CLOWN

One of San­dor Eke’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries is of an ele­phant com­fort­ing him, stretch­ing its trunk through his trailer win­dow, while he lay re­cov­er­ing from ill­ness.

Eke’s Hun­gar­ian par­ents were per­form­ing at a cir­cus in Swe­den, and Eke was just a tod­dler. A few years later, he’d be a cir­cus per­former him­self, and as­pir­ing to come to Amer­ica to join Rin­gling.

He got his wish 20 years ago, as an ac­ro­bat. Five years later, his col­leagues told him he was funny and would make a good clown.

Now, at age 41, he’s the Boss Clown, leader of the clowns on the unit. He’s also dad to two-year-old Michael, and they are en­joy­ing the wan­ing days here to­gether.

“You have your own zoo. You can pet an ele­phant; you can play with the baby tigers,” Eke says. “You have your own clowns. Ev­ery­body loves you. A cir­cus is a very big fam­ily.”

Some­day, he plans to teach his son jug­gling and other cir­cus skills.

Even so, Eke knows Michael may never join the cir­cus.

Eke’s wife, a former cir­cus aeri­al­ist, has al­ready es­tab­lished their new home in Las Ve­gas. When the cir­cus closes, Eke hopes to get a job as a “flair” bar­tender there, do­ing tricks like jug­gling bot­tles.

He won­ders how life will change. “My nor­mal life is this. My nor­mal life is go­ing on the train, go­ing ev­ery week to a dif­fer­ent city,” Eke says. “It’s crazy how much I love cir­cus.”

Know­ing it’s com­ing to an end has been dif­fi­cult for his fel­low per­form­ers and crew, and Eke been spend­ing his time try­ing to make his cir­cus fam­ily laugh.

“I don’t stop un­til they smile,” he says. “And I do ev­ery­thing. I don’t care if I have to dive into a trash­can. That’s how I want to be re­mem­bered. And that’s how I want to re­mem­ber my­self. I’m go­ing to go and cry. But I’m go­ing to be happy.”

SEND OUT THE CLOWNS

Ivan Var­gas likes to say his par­ents fell in love with the air.

He is sixth-gen­er­a­tion cir­cus. His mother per­formed on the high wire when they met, his fa­ther on the trapeze.

Var­gas was born be­tween two Rin­gling Bros. shows in Madison, Wis­con­sin, in 1990. His fa­ther man­aged to per­form in the early show, then made it across the street to the hospi­tal - in cos­tume - for his son’s birth.

Var­gas is part of Clown Al­ley. It’s not just a place. In one sense, it’s the pri­vate area back­stage where clowns get ready to per­form. But it’s also how the clowns re­fer to them­selves, a mini-fra­ter­nity within the cir­cus, and a mi­cro­cosm of it.

There’s Brian Wright, a cir­cus su­per fan, of sorts. He was 4 years old when he saw his first Rin­gling show, and he knew that’s what he wanted to do.

The Brook­lyn, New York, na­tive au­di­tioned three times be­fore fi­nally land­ing a job as a clown. Now he keeps a book he likes to call the “Clown Bi­ble,” which, af­ter four years at Rin­gling, is now filled with mem­o­ries, thoughts and jokes he col­lects when he meets a former clown.

And there are Nick Lam­bert and Stephen Craig, nei­ther of whom gave a thought to join­ing the cir­cus un­til they were out of col­lege. They ended up here be­cause of their love of act­ing.

Lam­bert has a plan for his last hours on the cir­cus train, be­fore he heads back to his home­town of Al­bion, Illi­nois.

The morn­ing af­ter the last per­for­mance, he’ll sit in his com­part­ment on the train and open up a cabi­net. There, clowns from years past have writ­ten their names, shows and years they per­formed with Rin­gling.

“I’ll get to add my name to the door,” he says. “I’m the last one in this room be­fore it is all gone.”

BIRTH ON A WIRE (OR CLOSE TO IT)

Be­ing a cir­cus per­former takes com­mit­ment, dis­ci­pline and ath­leti­cism, qual­i­ties Anna Lebe­deva ex­hibits when she bal­ances on the high wire with her hus­band, Mustafa Dan­guir.

She ex­e­cutes her tricks so ef­fort­lessly, it’s hard to be­lieve she had a baby three months ago.

It was im­por­tant to her to per­form in Rin­gling Bros.’ last shows, she says, and she pushed her­self to get back in con­di­tion af­ter their son, Amir, was born.

“I’m re­ally happy to have a chance to fin­ish this. It’s been seven years for us,” she says. “This is just his­tory, you know?”

Dan­guir is the first in his fam­ily to per­form in the cir­cus. He was dis­cov­ered do­ing ac­ro­batic tricks as a child in Tang­ier, Morocco, and in­vited to cir­cus school. Lebe­deva, orig­i­nally from Moscow, is sixth-gen­er­a­tion cir­cus.

They mar­ried last year, 30 feet up on the high wire, while the show was in Hous­ton.

Now, they’ll move back to Europe. Dan­guir will ap­pear as a fi­nal­ist Satur­day on the TV show “Arabs Got Tal­ent.”

The cou­ple dreams of start­ing their own show, or maybe open­ing a cir­cus school in Morocco to teach fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. They’re op­ti­mistic some­thing good will come along.

“We are artists,” Dan­guir says. “We are sur­vivors.”

THE CUR­TAIN CLOSES

The tiger pre­sen­ter weeps as he ends his act with the big cats.

The an­i­mals are owned by Feld En­ter­tain­ment, which owns Rin­gling, and Taba­yara Malu­enda has to say good­bye.

The an­i­mals will be sent to a cen­tre that spe­cial­izes in tigers, ac­cord­ing to a Feld spokesman. Years of protests by an­i­mal rights groups are among the things that took their toll on the cir­cus in re­cent years, along with declining at­ten­dance and chang­ing pub­lic tastes.

As Malu­enda wipes away tears dur­ing their last ap­pear­ance to­gether, he thanks each an­i­mal in­di­vid­u­ally as it leaves the ring. One, he em­braces and kisses - the first tiger Feld got for him when he joined Rin­gling 13 years ago, one he raised it from its days as a cub.

Fi­nally, af­ter the aeri­al­ists, strong­men, the hu­man can­non­ball and the BMX bikes have all done their tricks, it’s over. The ring­mas­ter calls out the fam­i­lies of the per­form­ers and crew to join them on the arena floor for a fi­nal thank-you.

Among them are “Boss Clown” San­dor Eke and his son.

In a few days, the two will fly back to Hun­gary to visit fam­ily be­fore their per­ma­nent move to Las Ve­gas. Eke is plan­ning to visit a cir­cus he has heard about there.

“Any time I have a chance to see a cir­cus,” he says, “I will be there.”

But tonight, he stands on the arena floor one last time, holds his son in his arms, and cries.

AP PHOTO

Ring­mas­ter Kris­ten Michelle Wilson, right, hugs a mem­ber of the crew af­ter the red unit’s fi­nal per­for­mance on May 7 in Prov­i­dence, R.I. AP PHOTO

Rin­gling Bros. clown Ivan Var­gas speaks on a video call with his par­ents dur­ing the in­ter­mis­sion of a show on May 5 in Prov­i­dence, R.I. Var­gas’ par­ents work with Rin­gling’s other cir­cus unit, the blue unit, which will be fin­ish­ing up in Union­dale, N.Y. on Sun­day. AP PHOTO

In this April 1, 1963 file photo, a Rin­gling Bros. Cir­cus ele­phant walks out of a train car as young chil­dren watch in the Bronx rail­road yard in New York. AP PHOTO

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