Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sunday Morning, Out of the Past: My Date with John Ringling North

Enigmatic hands-off impresario John Ringling North loomed over his circus with an air of detached mystery. Over the years, I had written many letters to him seeking an interview. I even once wrote to Henry Kissinger, requesting his diplomatic skills, non gratis, in tracking down my prey. No luck.

In the end, were it not for John's less-aloof brother, Henry, it's unlikely that I would have ever met the man who hired Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine to create a ballet for elephants, who elevated three-ring showmanship in artfully spectacular and surprising ways, and who became an instant villain ("the executioner") when he struck the big top for good in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, fifty years ago last July 16th.

Sarasota, the day before Thanksgiving, 1982: That afternoon, I was perhaps better dressed than I had every been. For on that day, per previous arrangement with Henry, I was about to finally get my chance to interview JRN. I stood in the spacious living room of a condominium on one of the keyes off Sarasota where John and Henry had been staying during their annual October visit to the states. I waited, wondering when he would appear.

And when he did, I missed his entrance --- or had Henry purposely diverted my attention while John entered so that, upon looking back, I discovered the elusive circus king suddenly standing in the middle of the room? He wore a red dinner jacket (that's what it looked like to me) and, on his composed face, a fresh unassuming smile. He was discretely understated in demeanor. Yes, the whole thing felt like magic.

During the one hour and forty-five minutes that I was lucky to spend in his company, I beheld two distinctly different John Ringling Norths. The one who sat far across the room answering my questions in brief, sometimes terse replies, was regally contained, and he displayed a mental disposition as strong and unyielding as the rock of Gibraltar.

What Mr. North told me is recounted in my book, Big Top Boss. What I did not write about was the other North whom I experienced after the interview -- a kinder, warmer soul without airs. This he revealed when, referencing my earlier expressed interest in continuing the dialog in the coming days, he asked me for a number where I could be reached.

Mr. North could have easily instructed Henry to take my information and then made his exit. Instead, in the most intimate manner, he walked over to the kitchen counter and looked for a piece of paper like ordinary people look for pieces of paper. And he looked for a pen like ordinary people do. And he handed me the paper. I wrote down my number and gave it to him, and he accepted it graciously.

When I was at the door about to leave, Mr. North gazed upon my height with seeming admiration. He wondered how tall I was. (6'2") He was so utterly different from the person whom I had just interviewed. Maybe he was merely relieved (he had suffered a stroke some months earlier). Maybe he had never liked to be interviewed. I have a lingering last memory of his standing there, glancing up at me with smiling respect.

He never dialed the number I gave him. His gesture to secure it had at least shown compassion, hadn't it. Anyway, I got a distinct impression that he was not one to linger over a question or three. When I had asked him what he looked for scouting acts (thinking he might expound on various elements like an analytical theatre director will do), he answered, "Something I haven't seen before."

Strange, I still harbor a fantasy image of John Ringling North looming over the circus with an air of elusive mystery.

Originally posted on 11.23.06