TEARS OF THE CLOWNS
After more than a century, famous circus folds up its tents
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.
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.