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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.

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

A Boy and His Elephant

Posted: March 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

Ringling Bros. has announced they will no longer feature performing elephants on the circus beginning in 2018. The following neither condemns nor celebrates that decision, and offers no opinion on the issue of whether elephants should or should not perform in circuses. It’s a snapshot of an era that is about to end.

Tichi was a 4 ton Asian elephant. She was also my ride during ten minutes or so of each Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance. It was the best part of my job, and the part of the show I looked forward to most.

(KB Fun Fact: When you ride an elephant, you hook your feet under their ears so you don’t get bounced off when they start to run.)

One day, we were lined up with 23 other elephants and their respective riders, all ready to go out on the arena floor to entertain 12,000 children of all ages. We were positioned next to the audience-filled bleachers and were waiting for our cue. A man in the bleachers held out a handful of…something. I didn’t know what it was. Cotton Candy? Popcorn? No clue. Whatever it was, he was offering it to Tichi to eat. Elephants LOVE food, so Tichi’s trunk began to sneak slowly upward to take whatever the guy was offering. I say “sneak” because she knew she wasn’t supposed to take it.

I started yelling at the guy, “DO NOT FEED THIS ELEPHANT!” He just grinned and leaned out further to hand Tichi the….whatever it was. I started to panic. I didn’t know what he was trying to feed her, and had no idea if it was something that would hurt her. I looked desperately around for a groom, or Tichi’s trainer and presenter, Gunther Gebel-Williams.

Gunther was arguably the greatest animal trainer in history. Born in Poland, he grew up on a circus in Germany. By the time I worked with him, he had been a star in America for 20 years. No one in the circus worked harder than Gunther. He personally supervised the care and training of each animal on the Ringling show. Horses, tigers, elephants, llamas, Gunther worked with them all, and on the same show. He even drove the bus in which he and his family lived from city to city. He was the hardest-working person in showbusiness, bar none.

Gunther was nowhere to be found as Tichi reached for the food. I did the only thing a clown in my situation could do. I gave Tichi the command to “back up”. I imitated Gunther’s voice, and gave the command in German, the language he used with his animals. I must have done a good enough job to fool her because she immediately backed up and got into line….just as Gunther came around the corner. He had heard me! With a murderous fire in his eyes, he jabbed his index finger toward me in a gesture that meant, “You come see me after the show.” I was doomed. Dead man walking. This was my last day as a circus clown. I knew it, and Gunther knew I knew it. Tichi knew it too.

(KB Fun Fact: Messing with Gunther’s animals was a one-way ticket off the show at best, and a potential ass-kicking at worst. He supported his animals over humans every time, and without reservation.)

I reported as ordered. In his thick German accent, Gunther demanded an explanation.

I said, “Gunther, the guy was trying to feed Tichi. I couldn’t find anyone who could get her to stop, so I gave her the command in your voice hoping to fool her back into line. I know I’m not supposed to do that, but I’d rather get fired than see her get hurt.”

He glared at me. It must have been for just a few seconds, but it felt like a lifetime.

“Clownie. That was the only thing you could have said that would save your job. Go back to work.”

Here’s me and my gal…..

Gunther, with whom it was unwise to trifle, and his close friend…