For the first time in 146 years, there are no Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performances scheduled, and the world is a poorer place for it. The Greatest Show on Earth is no more. Your great-great grandparents may have had a date at a show. It is now certain that your great-great grandchildren will not.

Before we continue, a word about the animals…If you believe they were mistreated or abused, stop reading. This is not for you. All I can tell you is that I was there. I lived and worked with these animals 24/7, and if you believe they were abused, then you were NOT there. Elephants, for example, do not breed unless their social and biological needs are met. RBBB had the single most successful breeding program in the Western Hemisphere. The proof is in the pudding.

Still here? Great. In the 1800’s PT Barnum created the circus spectacle. Three rings, two stages, more than the eye could take in during a single performance. Family entertainment for children of all ages on a scale never before seen. Barnum partnered with the greatest circus showman of that era, James Bailey, to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Ringling Bros. bought the show and combined it with their own. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was born.
At that time, RBBB was a tent show. The Big Top seated from 5,000 to 9,000 people over the years. The 100-car train carried 1,200 employees and nearly as many animals. It was a city on wheels which moved the circus across the USA on a perpetual tour of one-night-stands. Each night, the circus would pack itself up, load itself out, head to the next stand, and do it all over again. So impressive was this feat, the US Army brought RBBB in to consult on logistics regarding moving people and materials in order to better fight WWI.
Moving the show into arenas and out of the tent in 1956, RBBB was still a juggernaut with a train a mile long. As new arenas were built across the country, Ringling rolled out to meet them. When the Astrodome was built in Houston, RBBB rolled in and sold it out. 67,000 seats. A record for the Astrodome and Ringling.

Those are the basic facts.

Now for the truth. Ringling was more than a show. It was a culture with it’s own language, traditions, and peculiar form of justice. Some people stayed; Lou Jacobs was a Ringling clown for 66 years. Some people left after one season. All are part of a family that made up the longest continually-running theatrical production in modern history.
All are world-class athletes who pushed the very boundaries of human ability, 13 times per week. In the final performance, trapeze artist Ammed Garcia Tuniziani twice attempted a quadruple somersault…a feat so difficult only a handful of performers have sporadically succeeded over the past 30 years. Ammed failed, but it didn’t matter. The RBBB audience was thrilled by the attempts.

Ringling was a truly great spectacle. 24 elephants. 14 tigers. 18 horses. Llamas, dogs, chimps, a giraffe, a famous gorilla, bears, and at least one disgruntled bison all were featured under the Ringling banner.
Human acts included teeterboard artists from Soviet-bloc countries who performed double backward somersaults to a five-man-high pyramid, a man in tails and top hat who balanced 30 feet in the air on one finger, human cannonballs, contortionists, BMX riders, unicycle riders, wire walkers, and 24 clowns per show…all these and more put their lives on the line daily in order to spread joy and wonder.

As joyful and wondrous as it is, the circus is a cruel mistress who kills it’s brightest stars. Two members of the Wallenda wire walking family were killed in a fall in 1962. Lillian Leitzel was world-famous in 1932 for an act in which she would climb a rope, grasp it with one hand, and repeatedly flip her body over her shoulder. During a performance in Copenhagen, she fell 40 feet and died a few days later. Dessi Espana died in 2004 when a piece of aerial equipment failed and sent her plunging 30 feet down to the arena floor. Two Ringling performers, Ceslee Conkling, a clown, and Ted Svertesky, an elephant trainer, were killed in a circus train crash in 1994. Ringling Bros. performers accepted the possibility of being killed as the price of admission to being a member of the Greatest Show on Earth family.
Circus life was never easy. Performers and crew lived in rooms on the mile-long train mentioned earlier. Each room was 6X3X7.5, and was built out of 3/4 inch plywood. (Funfact: According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to TWICE as much living space.) While each car had sinks and commodes, the only showers were to be had inside the arena locker rooms. Sit down baths? Not an option unless someone rented a hotel room. Everyone traveled from the railroad yard where the train was parked to the arena and back aboard the RBBB bus, which cost 25 cents to ride each way.
As in any community, love was fallen into–and went unrequited, weddings were celebrated, babies were born, breakups and divorces were mourned. Life was lived by the clock of show schedules, and centered around the three sacred performance rings.

A word about rings…As many circus-type acts as a theatrical show may have, it’s not an actual CIRCUS unless it has at least one ring. It’s the ring which defines circus, circumscribing life and death within its 42 feet diameter. Why 42 feet? That’s the ideal diameter for a galloping horse. The RBBB rings are where Mass was held on Sunday morning, and where lives were risked on Sunday afternoon.

Today, the rings have been disassembled and sold to the highest bidder The train has been sold off car by car. Pie-Car Jr, the RBBB food truck which parked out back of the arena and sold food to performers “at cost,” (lol) is probably headed to a carnival where it will feed fairground workers. Guy lines will be cut into one-inch sections and sold as a remembrance of the show. The elephants are headed to a 700 acre facility in North Florida, and the performers are headed for home, the open road, other shows, or oblivion.
Our city has been dismantled and dissolved. Forever. I’m sad that you’ll never be able to visit us, again. I’m sad that a chain of performances stretching back 146 years is now broken. Most of all, I’m sad for the children who will never see 24 elephants on parade, 20 clowns piling out of an impossibly tiny car, and hear a Ringmaster cry, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of ALLLLL ages! The producers are proud to present…..RINGLING BROS AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS! THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!”

In the Broadway musical BARNUM, PT Barnum sings about a bleak and dreary world saying, “Someone’s got to make it bright. Shoot a rocket! Shine a light! Tell ya who that someone’s gonna be….”

Until today, we KNEW who that someone was gonna be.

Now?

No idea, but I can’t wait to find out!!!!

See you down the road.

I wrote a play.

Posted: March 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

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The BBC has an annual radio playwriting contest. On a whim, I assigned myself the task of writing a play and entering. The attached PDF is the final result. In the end, the important thing is not how well written it is, or if it’s even remotely entertaining. The important thing is, there is now a play where there was none before.  Still…all production rights are reserved.

Why I do what I do.

Posted: February 15, 2016 in Uncategorized

In 1986, I was a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The show was playing for two weeks at the Washington DC Armory, and it was shortly before the matinee showtime on the first Thursday of the stand. I was backstage when I noticed a man sitting alone in a wheelchair. Backstage was not a public area. It was unusual that anyone not on the show would be there, much less a man alone in a wheelchair.

I looked a little more closely, and I realized it was James Brady, Ronald Reagan’s former press secretary. He had been shot in the head by Mark Hinkley during the assassination attempt. Hence, the wheelchair.

Or course I wanted to meet him, but I wasn’t sure if I should approach him. I had seen him be overly emotional on TV, and I didn’t want to upset him. I decided that if he freaked out, I would just run away. After all, there were 20 clowns on the show…he wouldn’t know which one was me. So I introduced myself and said, “Are you Mr. Brady?”

“Yes I am. Nice to meet you.” he said. Whew! He was fine. I said, “Welcome to Ringling Bros. I hope you enjoy the show, and I just wanted to tell you how much I admire the pictures you took of Abraham Lincoln.” (OK, it was a stupid joke, but it was all I could think of.)

“I think you’re thinking of Matthew Brady.” he said. “That’s not you?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I’m JIM Brady.” I said, “Oh! Well. It’s nice to meet you, whoever you are.” I tipped my hat and walked away. He started laughing so hard, I thought he was going to fall out of the chair.

20 years later, I had the pleasure of meeting him again. This time I was out of clown makeup, and working in a different show in Atlantic City. “Mr. Brady, you probably don’t remember me, but we met backstage at the Armory when I was a clown with Ringling.” I said. He immediately said, “Your name is Kevin, right?” I was stunned, “How could you possibly remember?”

“Since I got shot,” he said, “people have treated me like gold. They’ve been wonderful to me. But, they treat me as though I’m fragile. Not even my best friends will fuck with me anymore to make me laugh. But you did, and I remember that.”

And THAT is why I do what I do.

My high school girlfriend dumped me suddenly and  unceremoniously. It hurt. Badly. I was planning to propose after graduation. I was crushed.

Her brief explanation went like this…She had been a varsity cheerleader her junior year, and tried out again senior year. At her school, the student body voted, and had a partial say in the process. All the guys voted her down because she was dating me–a guy from another school, and not them. She did not make the squad, so apparently, I had to go.

A few years later, I was watching Love Connection, and there she was!! She looked GREAT!!! The guy she went on the date with seemed really cool. He told funny, cute stories about their date. Stories that tugged at me a little, because I have similar stories about her.

At the end, when Chuck asked her if she would go on another date with him, she enthusiastically chirped, “I would LOVE to!”. Chuck turned to the guy and said, “…and how about you?” He didn’t hesitate, “I don’t think so, Chuck.”

The look on her face perfectly mirrored the look on mine the day she dumped me.

Revenge is a dish best served while eating cold leftover pizza and channel surfing.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

  • I was on a flight from Detroit to Denver when it happened. We were told by the pilot of the first crash. It was tragic, but not without precedent, as a B2 bomber once crashed into the Empire State Building. When he told us of the second crash, and that we were being re-routed to Milwaukee, we knew we had been attacked. I turned to the guy seated seated next to me and blurted, “We’re now at war with SOMEbody. This is our Pearl Harbor.” We were on an American Airlines flight, and our flight attendants knew that friends and/pr colleagues had just been killed. They fought bravely through their tears, and heroically did what was necessary to get us on the ground and to safety. (I’d like to take a second to thank the often-unsung heroes of 9/11, the Air Traffic Controllers who got every plan in the USA down safely within what seemed like minutes. THANK you!)
    Once on the ground in Milwaukee, we were confronted with the grim task of retrieving our bags and figuring out what to do next. The airport was a strange mixture of grim-faced passengers who knew what had happened, and loud, impatient travelers who were upset by the inconvenience of landing at an unscheduled airport and being deplaned without further explanation. One by one those irate travelers demeanor changed when they noticed the news being broadcast on the monitors.
    I made it home to Indiana. The next day, I went outside and was struck by how beautifully blue and cloudless the sky was. Then I noticed….there were no airplane vapor trails. The late Summer sky was unmarred blue from horizon to horizon. It occurred to me that a sight like this probably hadn’t been seen in the USA for 50+ years. I took in the beauty, then prayed this sight would never be seen again.

I took the mound for the Las Vegas 51s one hot Summer day in 2014. I stared into the catchers eyes, and shook out my 53-year-old throwing arm. As I rubbed the brand-new ball to give myself a better grip, I thought back to a similarly hot Summer day in 1973…

I was the Little League 1st Baseman for the Mets in Munster, Indiana’s, A-league. We had a strong team. Years of playing together had turned us into a well-oiled, run-scoring machine full of 12-year-olds. I batted third, and was wrapping up an awesome season at the plate. I was a solid hitter who batted .440, and only struck out once. Gary Milliken batted behind me in the lineup, and was such a potent hitter our opponents didn’t dare walk me. They HAD to pitch to me. Gary and I racked up a LOT of home runs that season.

In the first inning, I hit the first pitch over the right field fence. (I hit right-handed, and tended to swing a little behind the ball.) My second time at bat…BOOM…a line drive over the same spot on the fence. Two consecutive pitches, two home runs. It doesn’t get any better than that in July in the Midwest. Our coach sensibly took me out of the game at that point. He didn’t want to spoil a perfect day, though my pre-teen ego told me I could DEFINITELY hit a third.

After that season, music and girls took hold of my interest, and I moved away from the game I loved.

Fast forward to 2014. I was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Las Vegas 51s game. The 51s are the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets. They play in the Pacific Coast league, and are managed by Wally Backman, former 2nd Baseman for the Mets. Their Pitching Coach is Cy Young Award-winner, World Series MVP, Sweet Music himself, Frank Viola. In front of these two legends, I was invited to take the mound.

I was screwed.

I never had a great arm. Not even a very good one. I could hit, and was a competent fielder, but my arm never caught up with the rest of my skill set. That’s why I played 1st Base, not a lot of throwing. Nonetheless, the sport a man plays in his youth is the sport he always believes he can still play well, given the right opportunity. I was being given the right opportunity, in the right sport, but in the wrong spot on the field. At the plate, I might be able to pull it off, as long as the pitcher threw…not too fast…at my preferred spot of slightly less than shoulder high on the outside edge of the plate. But pitching? Not a chance. No way.

Still…….

It was a chance to see if I still had a little gas left in the tank. So I said, “Yes. I would LOVE to throw out the first pitch…but are you sure there’s no ceremonial first hit?” They assured me there was not, so I mentally prepared myself to either validate, or completely destroy, my sense of self as a man. As an AMERICAN man participating in the National Pastime.

I stepped out of the dugout into the blazing hot Nevada sun. The temperature was well over 110 degrees on a Sunday afternoon. The place was virtually empty. No Nevada resident in their right mind goes to the ballpark on a day like that. Good! While there would be no crowd to witness potential triumph, there would also be none to witness abject failure. If I Baba Booeyed* the pitch, my humiliation would be witnessed only by Coach Backman, Coach Viola, and a handful of players, which was bad enough. (*Google “Baba Booey First Pitch Blunder” and watch the video. Gary Dell’Abate…Howard Stern’s Producer…threw out the first pitch at a Mets game. It was so wild and wide, it prompted the sportscaster to blurt out “Jesus Christ! He just threw the ball and hit the umpire!”)

There was a bright spot on the field in Las Vegas. An 11-year-old girl who was raising money for a charity was also going to throw a pitch. Perfect! There was no WAY I could could follow an 11-year-old and not throw at least a little better. She walked over onto the grass in front of the mound…the traditional spot…and went into her adorable little pitcher’s stretch. She then shook her head, and stepped up ON THE FRIGGIN’ MOUND! The tiny crowd roared it’s approval.

Wait….she couldn’t do that. *I* couldn’t do that! There was no way I could pull it off from up there. But I had to because I couldn’t wuss out after a little girl threw from the rubber. It didn’t matter whether she got it over the plate or not. The fact that she was willing to try it from there meant I HAD to try. Crap.

She bounced in a two-hopper.

I turned to Frank Viola and said, “Coach, how do I NOT screw this up, now that I have to throw from the mound?”

Mr. I-Held-The-Cardinals-To-Just-Two-Runs-In-The-Seventh-Game-Of-The-World-Series grinned at me and said, “Try not to think about it. HA! TOO LATE!”

Thanks, Coach.

“Just go up there and have fun. That’s what we tell the kids,” he said, gesturing toward the players who were starting to warm up.

OK. Have fun. Got it. I stepped out onto the field, and it truly was a dream. The base path was some kind of finely-ground gravel, the likes of which I have never seen, and the grass….oh, the grass…it was soooo green and perfect it made me tear up, just a little. It truly was a cathedral of everything good and right about the USA.

And I was about to defile it.

Here’s what Major League Baseball says, “The distance between the pitcher’s plate and home base, (the rear point of home plate,) shall be 60 feet, 6 inches.” That is a lie. It’s at least 100 yards. At least.

Further, MLB tells us, “The top of the rubber on the pitcher’s mound is to be no higher than ten inches (25.4 cm) above home plate.” BS. It’s at least a mile.

I stepped up onto the mound, and looked across the gulf at my catcher, who was only about 11 inches tall at that distance. “This looks like a LOT farther than 60 feet from up here,” I said.

“YEP!” he grinned, and settled into his crouch.

He signaled for the old Number One. The heater, the fastball, the smoke. Riiiiiight. I nodded, and rocked back in an effort to make some kind of approximation of a pitcher’s motion. It felt pretty good! I pointed my glove hand at the catcher’s mitt as I went into a little kick. (A kick. I had a little kick!)

I let it fly.

To be perfectly honest, if my 12-year-old self had been batting, he would have crushed it 300 feet, at least. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a strike. A strike! A little gas left in the tank in a real ballpark from which real players get called up to The Show.

One last perfect Summer day.

ballgame

The Power of “Yes”

Posted: March 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

I was asked if I wanted to play King Uther Pendragon in a production of Young King Arthur at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in early 2002. I had been working in nightclubs for 10 years as a standup comic, and wanted to return, at least for a little while, to my roots as an actor. I also wanted to appear in something my then-2 year old daughter could attend. I wanted her to see what Daddy did for a living.

I said yes.

During the run of the play, the director mentioned that the Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis was doing a 48-hour benefit for arts organizations in lower Manhattan which had been affected by 9/11. She asked if I would like to be a part of it.

I said yes.

The artistic director of the Phoenix, Bryan Fonseca, asked if I would do the 8am hour on Saturday morning. Not exactly the ideal timeslot for a comic. We are creatures of the night, like Dracula. Not rise-and-shine early birds.

I said yes.

I did an hour’s worth of standup as I cooked breakfast for everyone in the theater. It was a blast. Afterward, Bryan mentioned that his upcoming New Plays Festival was, and I quote, “Long on AIDS & death, and short on comedy.” He asked if I had a funny one-man play I’d like to present.

I said yes.

It was a lie.

I had no such play, and only two months in which to write one. I decided to write something my daughter and I could do together. She was only 2 1/2 at this point, so her part would have to be small. I wrote an autobiographical play about being a former circus clown, a standup comic, and the great-grandson of a notorious fraudulent spiritualist medium, and how all of this is the parental legacy I would hand down to my daughter. She came on at the end of the show, after my tales of the circus, with her own clown nose on, and we did circus tricks to close out the show. During some performances, she walked onstage and flatly refused to do circus tricks. No matter. She was adorable, and the audience loved her. She was the hit of the festival.

A month or so later, the Chicago Comedy Festival called. They were short a one-man show, and wondered if I would like to bring my new play up to the fest.

I said yes.

My daughter and I headed up to Chicago and presented our little play. She was once again the hit of the festival. Her fans would recognize her on the street and say hi. She was better known than I was, and all for a 30-second appearance onstage. We had a blast.

Several months later, a standup comic friend of mine told me that Rob Becker was looking for someone to replace himself on the Broadway tour of Defending the Caveman.  He had heard I had written a one-man play about family, and felt I might be a good fit in Rob’s one-man play about family. He asked if I would like to be hooked up with an audition.

I said YES.

I auditioned and won the role. Thus began a four-year tour of the finest theaters in America. I played the Shubert Theater in New Haven, the 4,000 seat FOX Theater in St Louis, the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle, and everywhere in-between. I even performed Caveman in a 19th century city mansion in Paris, France, for a small group of people with tooooooo much money.

In early 2007, Rob Becker asked me if I wanted to leave the tour and open the show for an extended run in Las Vegas. This was a risky proposition. Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world, and it’s shows are full of sequins, music, vanishing tigers, acrobats, and long-legged showgirls with awesome boobs. No Broadway play had ever been a hit in Las Vegas. Caveman is one guy onstage who is playing a handful of characters and talking about being married. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, predicted a flop, despite my awesome boobs.

I said yes.

As of this writing, Caveman has played over 3,500 performances during its seven years in Las Vegas, and is still going strong. It’s the longest-running Broadway show in Las Vegas history, and I am the proud owner of a Guinness World Record, as well as the title “Las Vegas Entertainer or the Year.”

All because I said yes to a role in a children’s theater production.

~KB