Fond recollections of some of the many circus people I have been lucky to meet across the seasons, most of them making appearances or cameos in my new book, due out on World Circus Day.
* Sid Kellner, who hired me to work the James Bros Circus advance as press agent.. He could be charismatic and warm, and, on one shocking occasion, something quite different. I ended up with an affection for my one big top boss, and with haunting regrets over the great potential that Sid, in my view too addicted to the phone rooms, never quite realized.
* Henry Ringling North, when finally I was admitted through at New York’s Yale club, having been stopped at the sign-in desk for lack of proper attire (they found a make-do tie to frame my mug in), once I reached Mr. North many floors above, he bore a certain air of impatience, as if I had failed to dress for the king of England. A good interview followed.
* John Strong, sitting in the front row while I, all tangled up in my notes, gave a shaky address at the Circus Fans Convention in Scottsdale, Arizona. The awe on Big John's face as he looked up at me was so much like my own, when many years before, sitting under John's tiny tent at the county fair, I was charmed by his fo;ksy ringmaster style. John gave me my first interview, and I landed a big profile of him in The White Tops. How could you not love Big John? Those days of youth were the best days.
* His thundering knock on my motel room door in Sarasota, a half hour earlier than I had expected him to arrive. When I opened it, there he stood: “Hell, David, I haven’t got time to waste. Let’s get this over with!” It was Noyelles Burkart, a former Ringling legal adjuster (fixer) who had moved the show off the lot on Minneapolis in 1955, after the crew suddenly went on strike, leaving a tent full of disoriented spectators in stark limbo. He, no fan of John Ringling North, spoke of his darker side, but would not let me quote him in Big Top Boss.
I had great luck with circus man Merle Evans, who gave me one of my best interviews, and publicist F. Beverly Kelly, who penned a foreword for my book Behind the Big Top
* Miguel Vazquez, quad prince of the flying trapezes. Since he had caught his first quad on my birthday, I had a particular feeling for this incredibly gifted artist: Before a special screening of Phil Weyland’s film, The Last Great Circus Flyer, Weyland had arranged for my trek up the stairs to the highest reach in the balcony. Into a small reception room I entered. And there sat the famous flyer, rising to his feet to offer me an elevating hug.
* May Wirth, then in a Sarasota convalescent home, speaking to me while I tape recorder took it all down of her love for her horse Joe, and of John Ringling, whenever he was on the lot, demanding a complete act, no matter the weather, come hell or high water. She liked Charles Ringling a lot more.
* Alexi Sonin, director of the circus in St. Petersburg bursting into my box during intermission, having been told of my high regard for the show bringing me back to see it a second time. Now, he was coming to introduce himself to me! With Sonin came a humorous young prop hand to supply rudimentary translation, and through a few words and overly active body language, what a time we had. The great director directed the two of us into some dramatic posturing while a camera snapped away.
Alexi Sonin, right, and museum director Alexander Levin, center, during my 1979 visit to the circus in Leningrad.
* Barbara Byrd, recalling while we spoke by phone of how her dad, Dory, loved sitting under the big top and watching his show, day after day, whether there were "200 people in the seats, or two thousand people in the seats."
* Irvin Feld: My one brief and accidental sighting of the indomitable showman at the DC Armory in 1972, during the great circus war between Ringling-Barnum and Circus America,. Brief, and yet how vivid did his personality come across. Can you image this Irvin ever retiring his beloved circus from the road?
* So many others, too, were I lucky to meet or observe in action, close up. Among them: Merle Evans, Art Concello, Jane Johnson, Cliff Vargas, Johnny Pugh, La Norma, Louis Stern, Paul Binder, Richard Barstow, Pete and Norma Cristiani, Kenny Dodd, costume designer Miles White, himself full of juicy tales he later recanted on.