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

The Cristiani troupe, circa 1935. Front row, seated: Corky on the left, Pete on the right.

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.

Snow Cone.

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.


Lane Taburt said...

Wow! What a great first-person glimpse into the Cristianis, and Pete in particular. I have Ward Hall to thank for leading me to Norma and later to Pete for interviews of the good old days. (Ward and Norma were contemporaries on her dad's Dailey Bros. rail show in the late 1940s). I was absolutely awe-struck at seeing the Cristianis perform on their outdoor Bailey Bros.-Cristiani show in 1954 in my hometown, McAlester, OK. Pete probably would have been in the concessions stand under the bleachers of Jeff-Lee Stadium. But, like so many others who labored in the background, I wouldn't have known him from Adam.
Pete actually had a remarkable career as a circus manager, as I became more aware during my more recent interviews with him at Sarasota in mid-January and continue phone conversations afterward. I only hope my Bandwagon series can capture the flavor of his personality and accomplishment. But your blog has added a sparkle that only someone who was there could have provided. Thanks again.

Showbiz David said...

Thanks, Lane. I'm glad you enjoyed. I look forward to your continuing story. What a family they were!

Wade G. Burck said...

I will echo Lane, and say "great stuff," and also remind that Lane himself has done some "great stuff". I can appreciate your getting blown away, because I was blown away by GGW when I first saw him and said that is the direction I want to go with my life.
A very sad thing today is "what is there in the circus that will blow a young person away, and change the course of their life?"

Wade Burck

R said...

Hello Mr. Snow Cone,

Thank you kindly for your wonderful commentary on my family. I've been a fan of yours for some while but i had no idea of the time you spent on Uncle Pete's show until now. Interesting! There will never be another Aunt Norma: intelligent, fair-minded, warmhearted, honest to a fault and, best of all, easy to love.

Lane Talburt's articles are spot on. He's a great talent and one of the most fun-loving people I've come to know. I'm very proud to call Lane a dear friend. Lucky me!

Victoria B. Cristiani Rossi

Showbiz David said...

Dear Victoria,

How nice to hear from you. Thanks for your kind remarks.

Yours truly,

Mr. Snow Cone

Anonymous said...

Pete Jr was my roommate a couple of years ago. He told some very interesting stories. His parents are very nice as is the rest of his family.