Sunday, May 08, 2011
Sunday Morning, Looking Back: When Pete Cristiani Called Me "Snow Cone" ... When His Brothers Soared Over Elephants and Hooked me on Circus
Funny how, as the years pass, there are still things to learn or realize. How what should have seemed obvious all along, suddenly knocks at the door of your brain: Hello!
Reading Lane Talburt's profile in The Bandwagon of Pete Cristiani, a piece that spreads out and around the entire Cristiani clan that juiced Ringling and Hagenbeck rings when they came to American in the 1930s, I finally connected the Critstiani dots in my life -- from my second visit to a circus and the first under a tent, King Bros., in 1950, to the only circus -- Wallace Bros. -- in which I would ever "perform," only eleven years later and only for a six-weeks summer fling. How could so much have happened in so short a short span? From kid patron to amateur joey?
They were there at the absolute moment, helping to make it happen in fact, when I was seduced to the magic of a circus show -- not just to the performers who thrilled me with daring-do, but to the fascinating props in and around the rings, and, yes, to the animals, that were as much as part of the magic as were the mortals who brought them alive. In my favorite memory, I see a rambunctious rush of acrobats scampering up a rickety elevated silver ramp, at the tip of it suddenly thrusting their bodies high into the air thorough flips and somersaults over a mountain of elephants, and landing on the ground emphatically erect. Two of those wizards were Cristianis -- Lucio and Belmonte. So in the beginning, it was they who drew me in. Nothing in my King Bros. memory bank compares to that one moment.
Fast forward to 1961. My correspondent friend Bob Mitchell, serving as ringmaster for Wallace Bros. Circus, which Pete Cristiani managed, got me a job "ushering." The impromptu job interview, an informal introduction to "Papa" Ernesto Cristiani lasting long enough for Bob to tell Papa what a good and earnest circus fan and writer I was, made me a member of the staff on the spot at the Cleveland lakefront lot. And what a deal -- room and board and nothing a week. Elated was I.
A few weeks later, thanks to the forced exit of a young clown allegedly caught trying to clown down with a young girl under the seats, I was offered his floppy shoes to fill. My big big top break! Now, I lead the opening parade with baton in hand. There I am, to your right, waiting to go on. Now, I did his bits, one of them requiring me to lead a goat on a rope around the track while holding high a placard which read, "I've got Khrushchev goat."
And here is where Mr. Pete enters the story. He was only 36 years old at the time, but seemed so much older because I was so much younger. All things are relative. He was a fairly strong character yet with a certain air of quiet class. On the lot every morning -- or maybe only when the lot was a hell hole needing his redemptive supervisory skills. Before the first show, he was up front in a wagon settling money matters with the day's sponsor. Once, we waited and waited to start. The blue tent was restless with a near-full crowd. They, we guessed, were haggling up there over how much money the sponsor owed the circus or vice versa (stress "vice") . Tense tenting that day. Finally came the word: Start the show! I took my place head of the parade, the band banged into melodic noise and on we went ...
I loved Norma Cristiani. It was she whom I saw each Friday when up the steps to the ticket wagon I climbed, there to be handed my $25.00
Mr. Cristiani and I only once exchanged words. On the midway one early afternoon after I had slaved away with a sledgehammer driving stakes for the marquee (I still can't believe I ever did such a thing), Pete walked past me, paused briefly in a glib mood, patted me on my rear and cracked, "How's Snow Cone?"
I felt strangely flattered, and at first a little leery -- wondering. Happy to recount, nothing came of his humorous remark.
He was always around, a strong relentless presence, a force you could feel.
Those Italian horse riders were full of life. Cosetta's high-strutting kickery atop a cantering horse, my favorite part of the show, had sass and dazzle, spunk and plunk and a sultry rhythm. Corky, I'd been told, lived somewhere in L.A. married to a man of means and/or artistic talent. Once she visited the show. What a refined beauty was she.
The other Cristianis who had stuck to trouping kept the backyard dramatically alive, if not on 24-hour alert, with their hot-headed feuds. They sounded at times like a band of infidels stuck together in close quarters against their will. After a while, their feuds no longer scared me. I found them a little amusing.
So you could say it was they who lured me into the big top, and they who later hired me on for an experience of a lifetime that would open my eyes, momentarily, to the Other Side. What do I miss most at circuses? The spectacle of acrobats running down a ramp to throw themselves through circles and flip flops across a mountain of elephants -- that is what I miss. That special boyhood thrill brought to me by the fiery horse riders and acrobats from across the great ocean.