Circus Notebooks, 1927

Summer, 2003 / No. 10
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

We are all clowns. Some of us know it.

Bored and impatient. Though it’s only March, it’s already hot and damp in Florida, and we don’t go on the road for another week. “Working out the bugs,” says Mr. Enescu. A sick elephant, a few acts still incomplete. What to do with the latest young runaway—send him home, get him a mop and bucket, or fit him for an acrobat’s costume? But we need to get moving.

Wagons loaded, finally. The first show is several days away—Enescu couldn’t arrange anything nearby (Why not? Competition? The economy?), so we’ll be bumping along for a while, too close for comfort, but so it goes. In the wagon train we clowns are always stuffed into some tiny space as if that old routine weren’t a joke but rather our everyday reality, in or out of costume.

And speaking of costumes, what a motley array Enescu and company have come up with this year! No pun intended. The Arabian Nights gone bad. I mentioned something about it, jokingly so no one would take offence. But Enescu didn’t laugh. “Everybody knows,” he pronounced, with his cheeks all red and his absurd Romanian mustache quivering, “there’s nothing funnier than a gypsy.”

The reason we’re not appearing in Florida is that the Ringling Bros. multitude has been wintering only about three towns away. We passed right by their camp to-day, as well as by John and Mable Ringling’s famous mansion, whose tasteful neo-classical facade is personalized by two giant lead Sphinxes that guard the front entrance. Edwin, the young clog dancer who joined the company as a stowaway earlier this year, was riding up front with Mr. Enescu (hmm…) and said that Enescu’s mustache was twitching when they went by the mansion. I don’t doubt it. I’ve been with this circus five years now, and I can say for sure that it’ll be a cold day in hell when Enescu gets a house like that. Not in a million years.

My livelihood is on the line the same as everybody else’s, but still, all I can do is laugh. What happened is that the showgirls, all of them, just up and walked off the job after the show last night! Split, quit, and that’s the facts, Jack!

Who could blame them? They’re the lowest-paid performers, and the biggest attraction, as they well know. They’ve been asking for a raise since the winter, with Enescu and Goodman just pretending to be deaf in response. A couple of them, wobblies I guess, were even talking about organizing a union! Complete with child care and medical benefits for all circus performers. The Department of Labor would probably laugh at that one, but the point is they were mad as hell for a long time and nothing happened, so now Enescu is pacing around in circles sputtering, “Girls! What in God’s name is a circus without girls?!” It’s true. A two-bit circus like this, with only a couple of mangy animals and a bunch of hobo and ex-con types providing the entertainment, is little more than a glorified strip show. And now, no girls.

Everyone’s been yelling about it for hours; no wonder my head hurts. I’m going to bed.

Well, you’ve got to hand it to Enescu; the new showgirl act is truly a scream. I only hope the audience doesn’t run screaming for the exits when they see the new, improved “scab” showgirls that crazy Romanian came up with, namely myself; Jacques, the whiteface clown; Tom, who was previously part of the team handling the sick elephant (which, by the way, has been roaming the great savannah in the sky since the end of last month, much to Goodman and Enescu’s accountant’s chagrin); Edwin, the clog dancer; and anyone else with time to switch between his regular costume and the gypsy finery with which all us lovely “ladies” have been provided. Edwin, it must be noted, is more than handsome in clean, swirling crepe de Chine and peacock feathers; Enescu has shown uncharacteristic good taste in choosing him to be the act’s center, a role that consists of assuming various “glamorous” poses vaguely situated within scenes from currently fashionable theatrical plays and films. The rest of us, however, are a motley crew indeed, although I am confident that with a little more practice we shall be dancing a wicked cancan (thanks to Jacques, whose Parisian accent and moniker may not be fake after all, as most of us assumed). I can only wonder if Enescu is not putting us out as dupes, thinking that once the real girls hear about our act they will feel sorry for us and come back to the circus. The truth is, they will laugh themselves silly…

April Fool’s Day is long past, but it might as well have been to-day—the debut of the Vaude-Vedettes in the pre-show parade as well as in the ring. A funnier sight has undoubtedly not been seen in this Delaware burgh for quite some time, if ever. I myself was the inadvertent star of one stellar moment: stepping onto the stage in a ragtag harem dancer’s costume to the beat of sensuous Egyptian drums, I promptly tripped over my veil! Young Edwin saved the day, gallantly (or as gallant as a lad can be, dressed as a lady of the highest society) catching and leading me in an improvised tango that brought on the audience’s strongest applause of the night, or so I imagined in my rather exalted state. Whether they were laughing at the pratfall or actually sensing and sharing my awe at the heretofore unknown delight of Edwin’s embrace, I dare not speculate…

The Vaude-Vedettes are the sensation of the circuit, according to the papers. Enescu reads the articles aloud, his grin a wide-open abyss. “The Ringlings are fuming,” he cackles. “Fuming!” We still don’t get a raise, however.

Enescu, sensing the growing chemistry between myself and his cherished favorite (young Edwin), has begun to behave in a hostile manner toward me. Suddenly, my costume consists of the worst rags of all, and my performances are subtly sabotaged—scheduled to dance a solo tarantella, for example, I will break a shoe, or trip over some object on the floor that had not been there earlier. Yet these mishaps become part of the comedy, and the contrast between Edwin’s eloquence and my bumbling (the classic clown entree!) wins the heart of every crowd that witnesses us. What’s more, our joint success brings us ever closer together, in friendship and in physical proximity. The circus is thriving, yet, for the first time in five years, I fear that my position is in jeopardy. Nevertheless, I am happier than I have ever been…

Some people came to-day to photograph the Vaude-Vedettes for the moving pictures. Edwin was very excited; he has always wanted to be a movie star. I don’t believe that the risqué act that Tom and Jacques put on will make it to the cinemas, however. It would be easy, at this point, for things to go too far.

Not at all to my credit, I rely increasingly on Edwin’s companionship—Compassion? Affection? Words, in proximity to the boy’s enchanting presence, fail me—to get me through each day. But I know he is not serious. When this tour is over I feel sure that he will be out of my life. Although months yet remain, the solitude is overwhelming.

Enescu and Goodman are seriously considering selling the circus to the Ringlings. The latter only want the Vaude-Vedettes, but are prepared to buy out the entire company in order to discourage Enescu from starting a new showgirl act or hiring us back as competitors. No one knows where this will leave us. Enescu won’t even talk about it, but Goodman sent an employee all the way from his Chicago office to assure us that we’d at least be finishing out the season.

Privately, I am for the change; without Edwin, I’m afraid I would have to seize any excuse to leave this otherwise satisfactory way of life, as the circus would no longer be bearable without him. Unlike the rest of us, he possesses both talent and ambition, a combination that will inevitably carry him to larger outfits like John Ringling’s soon anyway, if not directly to California and his beloved moving pictures. And what would the Vaude-Vedettes be without their adored, adorable star?

The Pacific Ocean is bigger—no, not bigger, but brighter than I thought it would be. So many years wasted on the shores of Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, the accursed lakes and swamps of the mosquito-ridden South, unaware of my own simpleton’s ignorance! Of course I can say that in retrospect, forgetting the happy times simply because the present has brought me such far greater happiness…

Enescu’s Broadway Brothers Traveling Circus is no more, having succumbed to the inevitable power of the Ringling’s all-American monopoly. For me, however, the last straw came earlier, in the Southwest, when one of the large poles from the big top suddenly collapsed, maliciously crushing my right arm. There is no such thing as compensation in this business, and no alternative: the show must go on and me along with it, two shows nightly in full dress plaster, but not for long. Upon our arrival in California—the last segment of the tour—we were greeted by a posse of Hollywood agents, all eager to sign Edwin at practically any price. “The next Doug Fairbanks,” they called him! Blushing and stuttering just enough to alert them to his charming modesty, he handled the situation with extreme finesse. “Well, you men will have to speak to my manager,” he informed them. And pointed to me…

So, we are living at the seashore, and to hell with everything. The strangest things wash up on shore! The Pacific, Mother Nature’s capricious clown, disgorges great clumps of kelp—its thick vines ending in bulbous polyps that could well be the fanciful ships of an alien species—tangled with opalescent abalone shells, driftwood, and the occasional Chinese bottle, ornate vessels whose long-lost contents are a mystery. Gazing toward the rounded horizon, one almost imagines the arrival of Columbus’s galleons, or a ragged Ulysses clawing his way up the drifting slope of sand. They tell me that at certain times of the year, whales swim by, spouting great sprays of water and waving their tails in the air.

They tell me Enescu is managing a successful female impersonator stage show in San Francisco. I do not know; it doesn’t matter. Edwin is a swashbuckler and a movie star. There are parties, opening nights, and long, long afternoons in our front yard, which is the ocean, which is the entire world. Life is sweet.