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…

Epiphany at 30,000 Feet.

Posted: March 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

Once upon a time, I regularly logged enough air miles to qualify for the automatic upgrade to First Class (subject to availability, international flights excluded.) I met a lot of interesting people up there in the land of free cocktails and hubris. My favorite was a Conductor. Symphony, not choo-choo.

We spoke of theater and music. It was marvelous. Then, as men of a certain age are prone to do, we spoke about young adults just starting their careers in the arts. We agreed that there is a certain sense of entitlement among young artists. In standup comedy, new comics with a solid 5 minutes of material thinks they SHOULD be headlining, instead of being an opening act. Young comics with 20 solid minutes KNOW they are ready for their own sitcom.

In his orchestra, the maestro noted that young players fresh out of music school don’t seem to want to rehearse, and don’t really care about the quality of their performances. The fact that they graduated from a prestigious music program is all hard work they should ever be expected to do.

If you think that sounds like two cranky showbiz veterans complaining about “These Kids Today,” you would be right, but that doesn’t make the point any less valid.

“What do you say to your orchestra in order to get them to work hard and play their best?” I asked.

“I tell them, “There are people in our audience tonight who are seeing a live performance for the very first time. Sadly, tragically, there are also people who are seeing a live performance for the very last time. It is for those people we will now go onstage and play to the best of our abilities.””

I’ve thought about those words before every performance I’ve given since that flight.

I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve stood in the lobby of the theater, saying goodbye and thanks to the audience as they leave, and have seen a VERY old person who had just seen my show heading out into the night. In that moment I wonder if, sadly, my show will be the last live performance they see, and I say a silent thanks to my conductor friend for reminding me why we play to the best of our abilities.


Guess Who I Sat Next To?

Posted: March 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

I had a day off from my job as a circus clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and I decided to take in some theater. Culture is good, right? I chose Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring Jack Lemmon at the National Theater. Jack Lemmon. Hmmmm…might be tough to get a ticket at the last minute. Probably sold-out for weeks. NOPE! Scored a single seat in the THIRD ROW of the center orchestra section. One of the best seats in the house. The Fates were smiling on a hardworking clown.

On the off chance Mr. Lemmon might be willing to talk to me after the show, I went around to the stage door before heading in to take my seat. I knocked, and the door was answered by a guy about my age who identified himself as Jack’s assistant. I told him who I was, and that, if possible, I’d like to pay my respects to Mr. Lemmon after the show.

“Wait right here. I’ll find out for you.”

Not two minutes passed before the stage door opened again, and my new friend said with a smile, “Mr. Lemmon will be glad to see you, but asks that you not call it “paying your respects” because it makes him sound like he’s dead.” Holy cow. Jack friggin’ LEMMON was going to talk to me after the show! This was getting better and better.

I settled into my awesome seat and struck up a conversation with the better half of the older couple in the seats next to mine. While we chit-chatted I noticed that earnest-looking young men in the seats in front of us and behind us were attempting to chat up her husband, but I couldn’t figure out why. He mostly ignored them and studied his program. Just before curtain, she asked me who I was and where did I work?  It seemed slightly odd, the “Where do you work?” part. But OK. I told her. She uttered a thoughtful, “Hmmmm….” just as the show began.

The first act was incredible! If you only saw Jack Lemmon in films, I feel sorry for you. His range as a stage actor was astonishing.

As the lights came up for intermission, we all rose from our seats and scooted into the aisle. The nice lady from the seat next to mine said to her husband, “Honey, I want you to meet Kevin. He’s a clown with Ringling Bros.”

“Really?” he said, linking one arm through his wife’s and the other arm through mine, and like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man, we sailed up the aisle to the lobby. It struck me as odd, but what the hell? They were nice people. Fun. Easy to talk to. He even bought me a Coke at the bar. The earnest young men were visibly disturbed that my new friends were paying them zero attention.

We made our way back to our seats in our now-comfortable linked-arms formation. Then it hit me. Who my new friends were.

“Excuse me, but are you Senator Moynihan?”

“Yes I am,” said one of the most powerful men in the world.

Holy shit. Pat Moynihan. Bow tie and all. Then it REALLY hit me.

“These guys trying to talk to you…They’re lobbyists, aren’t they?”

“Yep,” he grinned.

“And you just used me to cock-block them from talking to you during intermission, didn’t you?”

“You bet!” he smiled, winking.

“Cool.” I said the lights went down.

My brush with limitless power ended when the Moynihans left just before the end of the play. But no matter. I was going to meet Jack Lemmon!

I presented myself at the stage door, and was ushered into Jack’s dressing room. He was seated at his mirror, removing his makeup. He was dressed in a white t-shirt, boxer shorts, and socks with garters. Jack Friggin’ Lemmon. The grin, the voice, the PRESENCE.

I was struck dumb. Literally. Like Wayne and Garth in front of Alice Cooper. Like Ralph Kramden caught in a lie. Homina-homina-homina.

Fortunately, he was extraordinarily kind to me. He kept the conversation going from his end with questions about the circus and clowning. All the while, I was desperately trying to think of just one single film he’d made. Blank. No Some Like It Hot. No Mister Roberts. Not even Grumpy Old Men. Nada. I was Raphie on Santa’s lap, “A football…..yeah.”

In the middle of this, two of the young actors from the show came in to see what was going on.  Jack introduced them as Peter Gallagher and Kevin Spacey. Remember, this was 1986, long before they were PETER FRIGGIN’ GALLAGHER and KEVIN FRIGGIN’ SPACEY. They, like me, were two young actors on tour. When Jack introduced me, he mentioned that I was a circus clown. As soon as they heard that, they both spun on their heels and wordlessly left the dressing room. Harsh.


But Lemmon and the Moynihans? They were coooooooooooool.