Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Three-Ring Thrill

Our systems manager/in-house juggler spends a day under the Big Top.

By Ian Blackburn

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  "Hey, can you go to St. Petersburg on Wednesday to cover the opening of the Ringling Bros. circus?"

I look up at our executive editor, standing in the doorway of my converted-supply-closet office and wait for the punchline. There isn't one forthcoming, so I glance at my calendar. Wednesday's open. My country needs me. There's a circus to be covered. I'm off to St. Petersburg for the 128th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.


5:40 A.M., McGHEE-TYSON AIRPORT

I'm supposed to meet up with Jim Early, a congenial old-school Knoxville broadcast journalist, promoter of the circus' local stop, and the guy who's making this trip possible. Jim has the tickets. It occurs to me that I don't know what Jim looks like. This little dilemma is solved by the arrival of reporter Rachelle Kennedy and videographer Julie Smith, the WATE-TV6 contingent, carrying a tripod and TV camera. Can't be many of those on the early flight to St. Pete.

I spend most of the uneventful flight looking over performer bios and working up a good circus mood—did I mention it's 6 a.m.? Due to the mercurial nature of McGhee-Tyson flight schedules, we actually fly into Orlando rather than St. Petersburg, which does in fact leave me feeling a little circusy—I rarely have work-related duties that require setting foot in four different cities before the hour when I'm usually getting up. I'm also pleasantly disoriented by the balmy Florida weather, in which Rachelle unknowingly becomes a feature presentation in my own personal little circus. There's a constant, multidirectional Gulf wind blowing, and in about a half-hour's time I look like I'm wearing a toupeé made out of fried rats. Rachelle looks like she just stepped out of a boardroom. I wonder if anyone would pay a quarter to see the Wild Boy of Borneo and the Imperturbable TV Anchor.


1:30 P.M., ST. PETERSBURG HILTON

So far, so good. We're met at the hotel by the promoter, a gregarious woman named Rebecca. "There's a change in the interview schedule," she says, looking a little grim. "There's been an accident. [Tiger trainer] Richard Chipperfield was mauled by one of the cats a couple hours ago. His brother shot the tiger." For the second time I pause, waiting for a punchline, and I'm really hoping for one this time. For the second time, there's not one forthcoming. The first event of the day is press conference with Ringling officials, the police, and the Bayfront Center's management. It was, forgive me, a media circus.

It didn't take long before I'd heard about a half-dozen retellings of what happened, mostly from passersby. "Hey, did you hear about that tiger that escaped and chased down that guy and bit his head off? They had to kill it to get it offa' him." A radio DJ joked that "a tiger decided to have his trainer for lunch." A St. Petersburg woman left a sympathy card—for the tiger—stuck in the fence.

Well, no tiger escaped. Nothing chased anybody down. During a practice session/photo shoot, Chipperfield was working in a cage with 12 cats. In interacting with "Arnold," a 350-pound Bengal he raised from a cub, he made a characteristic vocal/ breath-blowing sound—"chuffling" is the technical term—near the tiger's head.

It's something tigers do. Another thing tigers do is bite each other, and Arnold took hold of Chipperfield's head, releasing him only after being sprayed with fire extinguishers. The tigers were returned to their cages, and Chipperfield's distraught brother, Graham, killed the tiger with a shotgun retrieved from elsewhere. Rodney Huey, a visibly disquieted Ringling spokesman, explained it as "really a situation of the emotion of the moment," adding that "firearms are not routinely kept on the circus floor."

It's not unusual for tigers to treat each other in that manner as a form of social behavior, according to ringmaster James Ragona. As Ragona pointed out, though, people aren't quite as sturdy as tigers. The St. Petersburg Times quoted 20-year veteran trainer Wade Burck as saying, "When you're a trainer, that animal has accepted you as a member of their species. By accepting you, they're going to deal with you in the same respect."


3 P.M., BAYFRONT CENTER, ST. PETERSBURG

Like the saying goes, the show must go on...and it did, sans tigers, which speaks volumes for the resolve of the people who make up the RBB&B circus. If you didn't know that there'd been an accident, you wouldn't know it from watching the performers—at least in public. While talking with several of them beforehand, I was painfully aware of the media crews that had instantly descended on the arena looking for a juicy angle on a tiger attack. Animal-rights activists were quick on the draw—"The true feelings of the tigers toward their trainers was shown today," announced a spokesperson for Florida Voices for Animals. I glance down at the orange press tag around my neck and self-consciously tuck it into my shirt before approaching Mark Myers, the Human Cannonball.

A graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Myers was approached about a career change by Elvin Bale, "currently the world's foremost trainer of human cannonballs"—a title that must look great on a business card. Myers turned out to be a cannonball prodigy and, after six weeks of intensive cannon training, traded in his size 28 clown shoes for a sequined jumpsuit. I ask him what his muzzle velocity is.

"Good question," he laughs. "I want to get somebody, a policeman, to come in with a radar gun and see how fast I go. The calculations they have say I go about 68 miles an hour...it's like zero to 60 in three-fourths of a second."

I am no longer entertaining the thought of bribing someone to fire me out of the cannon.


4 P.M., BACKSTAGE

When I told our editor that I'd go down to St. Pete for the Ringling Bros. opening, what I didn't tell him is that running away to join the circus really was a dusty dream of mine. A friend of mine and I actually tried to do this once, except it wasn't really a circus. It was one of those crappy little carnivals that set up in parking lots. When you're a teenager in Johnson City, you learn to work with what you've got.

Other Knoxvillians have had a little more luck. Dug Meech and Dave Nichols, both of the most-Knoxville-of-all-bands Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes, have both toured as circus musicians. The Bijou Theatre Center's Scott McBride, a graduate of the official Ringling Clown College, toured the country in greasepaint.

If you go to the circus this week, you might not see any Knoxville performers, but you'll definitely hear one—Brock Henderson, formerly of Jazz Liberation Quartet and early-'90s fusion group Free Fourmula, replacing Nichols as the guitarist of the Ringling Bros. band.

"I don't think it's really hit me yet," said Henderson, who had been working as a computer equipment repairman in Knoxville prior to joining Ringling Bros. about six months ago. It's definitely not the standard corporate job. Henderson is quartered in typical circus accommodations—a train compartment that measures "about 7 by 8 feet," with a bed (which converts into a table), a sink, some cabinet space. "I kind of dig that," says Henderson. "There's your stuff, there's the kitchen, there's the bed. You sit there and practice, you get up and get something to eat, and your guitar's still there. You don't get distracted like you would in a house or apartment.

"I miss jamming in the clubs and some of the little things you take for granted living in your hometown, but it's been a great experience already. The people are cool, lots of different backgrounds," he tells. "And even playing the same show over and over again, there are always ways to challenge myself, focus on the intricacies of technique instead of letting the hands do it automatically without thinking about it.

"It's definitely a major step forward to what I want to be doing in the long run."


7 P.M. "THE BIG TOP"

With the events of the day being what they were, I had almost completely forgotten the main attraction—we were going to sit down and watch the circus. It's been more than 20 years now since I've been to one; I was a little fuzzy in the memory department, and I just remember them being wild and bright and crazy fun. This one lived up to the memory.

On this tour, the Ringling Bros. circus actually starts an hour before showtime with the "Three Ring Adventure," in which the arena floor is open to the public. In contrast with the traditional separation of the audience from the close-knit circus community, this time around you can interact with the performers and animals, except for the ones that are substantially bigger than you are.

That only applies to the animals, actually. Khan, an 8-foot-tall Pakistani, is substantially bigger than I am, especially when standing next to me smiling politely at kids who repeatedly ask what shoe size he wears. Clowns abound, wearing even bigger shoes than Khan's, and I notice later that they're careful to not walk directly behind the elephants. Milling about are the Ayala sisters, fifth-generation performers who swing by their hair in huge circles 30 feet off the ground, and you can get close enough to them to see that yep, it's an ordinary, albeit well-taken-care-of, head of hair.

I take a handful of my own mop and try to lift myself off my heels. That hurts about as much as watching Nikolai the Iron-Jaw bend a steel bar held in his teeth, and don't get me started on Mysticlese, who brings a '90s twist to a time-honored circus staple—the Futon of Nails.

Instead of demystifying the circus by allowing a close-up look, the Three-Ring Adventure pulls back the curtain and shows the lack of smoke and mirrors. There's no "trick" to the tricks—what you see is pretty much what it is. There's no trap door beneath the small glass case that Marina, "the Lady in the Cube," folds herself up into. I briefly consider asking her to take me on as an apprentice so I can Fed Ex myself around the country.

After a few preliminary acts (the "sideshow"), the circus begins, and there's more going on than I can possibly take in. This is perfect, I think, for the rapid-fire, MTV-induced, short-attention-span generation. There's not a lot I ever see, performance-wise, that makes me laugh hard enough to spill popcorn on my neighbor, but I've got two words here: skateboarding poodles. (Sorry 'bout that popcorn, Rachelle).

The most impressive act was the Quiros Brothers' high-wire act. Actually, to be truthful, they scared the hell out of me. You know how it's easy to take the national debt in stride? Most people can't think in numbers that high. The Quiros affected me the same way. I couldn't believe some of the things these lunatics were doing—it didn't even show up on the radar of my danger assessment.

And the only net was one to catch a wooden chair they threw down after they were finished with it.


11:15 P.M. GREAT SOUTHERN BREWING COMPANY, KNOXVILLE

Back on terra firma. The entire trip took about 36 hours, and I'm exhausted.

"So whatcha been up to today?" asks the bartender. I think about that one for a moment.

"I went to Florida to talk to some women who swing around coliseums by their hair," I answer.

The bartender looks at me oddly and eyes my half-finished beer. "No, really," I say, nodding at the glass. "That's the only one I've had."


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