The following is a guest post from blogger and former Ringling clown André du Broc
I’ve spent much of my life in careers centered around making others happy. As an actor, I believed that my first responsibility was to the audience. They needed to be delighted and engaged by everything that I did on stage. This was particularly true of my time as a circus clown. If an audience’s joy depended on my dropping my pants, I dropped my pants. If it meant taking a pie in the face three times a day, so be it. Many may have thought that these actions were undignified. I saw it as doing my job well. It brought me great satisfaction to see families sitting together in a crowded stadium and smiling from ear to ear.
Every Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show begins with the ringmaster’s announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Children of all ages!”
I love that thought. From the beginning of the show, the audience is told to leave adulthood at the door. Be a kid again. Laugh. Smile. Enjoy!
The veneer of the circus was everything I desired in a career. It was a chance to make masses of people happy, a chance to travel all over, and an opportunity to take my silliness very seriously. What I found backstage, however, was very different. My goal is not to write an exposé of everything that happened backstage at Ringling. My former work as a circus clown has carried me far and opened a lot of doors for me over the years, and for that I am very grateful. But there was a world behind the curtain that I was not equipped to handle.
Audiences come to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth (“Big Bertha” to circus folks) primarily to see two things—clowns and elephants.
I spent most of my time with the elephants. In Tampa, I had a roommate who was an elephant trainer for a local zoo, so I had a deep fondness for these massive animals. If you look into the eyes of an elephant, you can’t help but remark at their soulfulness. They are filled with expression. When an elephant is happy, you can tell at a glance. Back in Tampa, when the elephants were allowed to play in the water, their eyes would twinkle, their bodies would waddle, and their trunks would curl up, pulling their large mouths into an unmistakable smile. They looked like they were having fun. They were happy.
I never saw the elephants in the circus make that face. They looked tired, weary, frustrated, angry, and so very sad. I stopped one of the assistant elephant handlers to ask why a particular elephant had tears pouring down the sides of her face. He laughed, “‘Cause she’s a bitch and the bitch got what was coming to her.” He then pointed to the welt on the side of his face from where she had slapped him with her trunk. He then showed me his bullhook, a 2-foot-long stick with a metal hook on the end that is used to train elephants. “I gave her about 10 good whacks across her skull. Bam! Bam! Bam!” he demonstrated. “Bitch’ll think twice before she messes with me.” This brutal assistant handler had never received any formal training in dealing with elephants. His job was simply to keep them fed, watered, and in line.
I remember that there was always a bullhook in the corner of the apartment back in Tampa. The metal hook had a blunt, rounded tip. My roommate had explained that it was used to hook the inside of where the mouth and trunk met. You give it a slight tug and the elephant will move in that direction. I witnessed many of the Ringling trainers sitting in circles, sharpening their bullhooks to dangerous points. They wanted the elephants to fear them, and the best way to do that was to inflict as much pain as possible.
Each of these great animals were looking at a lifetime of being chained to a wall, beaten, and marched out briefly to perform. Unlike those I left in Tampa, they would never roll in the grass or enjoy playing in the water.
The largest of the elephants, King Tusk, had a particularly sad story. When he first came to Ringling from another circus in 1986, he was the largest traveling land mammal alive. At 42 years old, weighing 14,762 pounds, standing 12 feet 6 inches tall, and sporting a length of 27 feet, King Tusk (Tommy) was a spectacular being. In the wild, elephants are constantly rubbing down their tusks to reduce the weight carried by their head. Tommy, however, had been prohibited from doing so for 42 years, and this had allowed his tusks to grow unacceptably long. In fact, where cracks would form along the tusk, metal bands were installed to keep them from breaking. His tusks were more than 7 feet long and put enormous weight and strain on his back. He had arthritis in his neck and back, and by the time I joined the circus in 1992, he could no longer perform any tricks.
Instead of retiring this great elephant with dignity and shaving down his tusks so that he could live out his remaining years in comfort, Ringling would have him simply stand in the center ring while two acrobats performed on his back.
Tommy was finally transferred to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 1998 after spending 51 years of his life performing in circuses. According to Two Tails Ranch’s records, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium sent him to live out his remaining years at their elephant facility in Florida, where at 57 years of age he was finally euthanized just before Christmas in 2002.
I am grateful for the experiences that I had in the circus. I learned about who I am as a person, an entertainer, and a clown. I learned so much and had amazing, exciting, and terrific experiences. Most importantly, I learned what dignity means. I filled my steamer trunk with plenty of it as I rolled it out of Clown Alley and away from the Big Top forever.
I will not go to a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show or any other Feld Entertainment production ever again.
Tommy would have wanted it that way.
André du Broc graduated from Clown College in the fall of 1992 and went on the road with Ringling’s blue unit in late October. He left the circus about a month later because he could no longer bear to witness the horrific treatment and living conditions of the animals. André maintains a blog at toomanycookies.wordpress.com.