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.