“Ladies and Gentlemen. Children of all ages!” Those were the hallowed words spoken by the ringmaster to kick off every show for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Those were the words that sent chills down my spine every time I went to the circus. Those were also the words that welcomed the last audience for the last ever performance of the Greatest Show on Earth.
Recently, I caught up with a friend (Christopher Sullivan) who was once a clown with the Greatest Show on Earth to ask him some questions that I've had building up inside me since Ringling bid their final adieu:
Question 1: During your time with Ringling, what are just a few things you've learned while on tour that you'll take with you forever?
Good question! I've learned many valuable things during my time on the circus. I learned a great deal more about clowning and circus history for one. I made many friends and connections that I'll have for a lifetime. I also honed some new skills and defined some old ones. I advanced in my juggling and I taught myself and developed a shaker cup juggling routine that I still use in performances today. I also discovered I have a knack for public speaking and show messaging which meant I was a huge asset to promoting the shows through various forms of media including Television, Radio, and print. I still use these skills today while I help promote the vaudeville style variety show I work for -Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre in Gatlinburg, TN. The most valuable thing I learned was something that I was already good at- connecting with people. At a previous job I found out I had been hired because of that. I had been working as a pharmacy technician while moonlighting as an actor. I certainly wasn't hired because I knew anything about the job... but I was hired because of my personality.
Question 2: Where do you think the circus (in general) is headed in today's society?
Contrary to popular belief by the general public- the circus is not dead. There are many wonderful circuses that are keeping circus alive and well and I 100% believe that everyone should go and support them. Aside from circus there are many variety style shows out there- I lucked into finding one. I find that it is the perfect blend of using my theatre and circus skills together.
Question 3: Do you have a favorite memory from your time on tour? If so, what is it?
One story that will always be my favorite was with a family that was sitting in the Circus Celebrity section- that meant they were able to come down on the arena floor for a special portion of the actual show while we sat with them. I noticed the family was using sign language... their little girl was deaf. They were signing what the ringmaster was saying. What happened next was almost exactly like what happened in the Miracle on 34th Street remake where Santa talks to the little girl in sign language. I'm in no way proficient in sign language but I knew enough to sign "You are beautiful!" the Little girls face lit up with the biggest smile I've ever seen. I explained to the parents that I didn't know a lot of sign language but that I knew a few words and phrases, I.e.: Circus Clown, popcorn, elephant, tiger, applause, thank you, etc. That moment will forever be engraved in my memory. The simplest of connections make for a lifetime of happy memories.
Question 4: Tell us, what does being a "clown" mean to you?
Being a clown is more than just putting on a red nose and a costume. Being a clown is about being able to make that connection. A clown is a humorous reflection of the world around him. We help bridge the gap between make believe and reality. I whole-heartedly believe that from the time people encounter a clown they forget about their own worries and issues for a little while. For that amount of time they see us (and perhaps a little reflection of themselves) and it is okay to laugh. I've seen this happen everywhere from living rooms, churches, street corners, shopping malls, birthday parties, festivals, and yes-- even the circus ring. Clowning is the ultimate gift of ones own self giving the word a little more joy and happiness to a world that so desperately needs it.
Thank you Chris for sharing some awesome info with us clowns, I hope that someone reading can use for themselves as entertainers. Be sure to check back in for possible interviews with other clowns from Ringling and other known circuses.
Also, if you're interested in learning some of the skills and techniques that Chris has mentioned, ClownAntics sells a great book on the "how to" of entertaining children of all ages. Check the book out here.