TEARS OF THE CLOWNS

Af­ter more than a cen­tury, fa­mous cir­cus folds up its tents

Windsor Star - - WEEKEND REVIEW - 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 on the high wire.

Th­ese sto­ries could come only from cir­cus per­form­ers — es­pe­cially the cir­cus im­mor­tal­ized as “The Great­est Show on Earth” — the Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus, which is hang­ing up 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, R.I., and with it, the end to a way of life few oth­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced.

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 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 thoughts from the home th­ese per­form­ers leave be­hind:

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.

His 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 the U.S. to join Rin­gling.

He got his wish 20 years ago. Now, at 41, he’s the Boss Clown, leader of the clowns on the unit. He’s also dad to two-year-old Michael, 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.”

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 there as a “flair” bar­tender, do­ing tricks like jug­gling bot­tles.

Know­ing it’s com­ing to an end has been dif­fi­cult for his fel­low per­form­ers, and Eke has been 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 trash can. 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.

His mother per­formed on the high wire when they met, his fa­ther on the trapeze.

Var­gas was born be­tween two Rin­gling shows 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: 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.

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’s last shows, she says, and she pushed her­self to get back in con­di­tion af­ter their son, Amir, was born. They mar­ried last year, 10 me­tres up on the high wire.

They’re op­ti­mistic some­thing good will come along.

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

You have your own zoo. You can pet an ele­phant; you can play with the baby tigers. You have your own clowns. Ev­ery­body loves you.

PHO­TOS: JULIE JA­COB­SON/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Clowns Ga­bor Hrisafis, left, and Beth Wal­ters have a chat be­fore a re­cent per­for­mance in Prov­i­dence, R.I. Be­low: Trainer Taba Malu­enda per­forms with a white tiger.

The au­di­ence re­acts to per­form­ers on the high wire. At left: Boss Clown San­dor Eke hugs his son Michael, 2, af­ter the fi­nal Rhode Is­land show.

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