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Big top, big memories

Posted: March 6, 2017 5:46 p.m.
Updated: March 7, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Photos provided by Stephen Lough/

Lough, bottom, with his friend and fellow clown Gabor during a RBB&B show.

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For Stephen Lough, who performed as a clown with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBB&B), the idea that the show would not go on was unthinkable. 

Sadly, the unthinkable is about to become reality: the RBB&B Circus, which has entertained millions for the last 146 years, will strike the Big Top for the last time in May.

“I feel sorry for the kids of the future who won’t be able to see this particular form of entertainment, a giant circus that travels by rail and overwhelms the senses,” Lough said. “It seems to me RBB&B Circus was the closest you could get to a live action version of a video game world.”

Lough, a Camden native, was 5 years old when his mother took him to the RBB&B Circus in Columbia. The lights, the noise, the extreme energy makes most of that memory a blur, yet Lough says he clearly remembers two performers: a tiger trainer and a clown named Lou Jacobs and his white Chihuahua, Knucklehead. The tiger trainer was a little frightening, but the clown unleashed happy hysterics, Lough said.

“The clown doing a hunting gag with the dog dressed as a rabbit with rabbit ears on made me go crazy,” Lough said.  “I remember screaming at the clown that the rabbit was slipping out of a hole in the sack he put over his shoulder, thinking he had bagged the rabbit.” 

A few years later, when Lough was 12, a mime troupe from Columbia put on a summer workshop in Camden for area kids. Between this and seeing comedian Steve Martin juggling on television, Lough decided he would learn to juggle. He checked out a book from the library on the subject and started practicing in the back yard. By the time he was in high school, Lough had worked out some solid routines and began performing, he said.

“My mom even made a black and gold jester’s suit, complete with bells, for me,” he said.

Lough attended Dartmouth College, where he would play football before being sidelined by an injury. One day as he was walking across campus, he saw a young woman juggling. He struck up a conversation with her, learned she was applying to RBB&B Clown College and gave Lough an extra copy of the application.   

Lightning struck, he said.

“That was it!” Lough said. “I would quit school and join the circus! I called home all excited about my new life plan, dropping out of Dartmouth and going to clown school in Florida!”

His mother, however, was less than impressed with that notion, he noted. 

“We struck a deal,” he said.  “I would finish school -- then I could do whatever I wanted.”

He settled back into college life, majoring in anthropology, continuing his work- study job and joining a fraternity. 

Toward the end of his senior year, Lough auditioned for RBB&B. Three weeks later, he stood at his mailbox on the Dartmouth campus, a letter on Ringling Bros. stationery in his hand, he said.

“My hands were shaking as I cut open the envelope,” he said. “I had no ‘Plan B.’ I was screwed if this was a ding letter.”

Then a huge pile of glitter and confetti spilled out of the envelope.

“My older brother, Larry was a doctor; my older brother Mark became a lawyer, so I would become a circus clown -- doctor, lawyer, circus clown!”

The 10-week clown college program was intense, with the candidates spending some 13 hours a day studying improv, pratfalls, juggling, pie-throwing, unicycling, tumbling, character and routine development, sewing and makeup, even clowning and circus history. Of 5,000 applicants to the program, 50 were accepted and 11 actually were hired on to one of the two touring circuses, Lough said.

Lough was one of the lucky 11; he enthusiastically admits he is one of the luckiest people who ever lived.

“Although I love my job now, and I do a fair bit of clowning, there is nothing like working for RBB&B Circus,” he said.  “Being backstage, behind the curtain, when the lights go out and the music starts from that crazy good live band, all the performers and animals lined up in order for the opening parade, I get goose bumps just thinking about it! You can be having a bad day, a bad month, whatever, but when it’s show time, all that bad stuff in life goes away and you are superhuman for two hours!”

Lough joined what was known as the blue unit in 1988 for the 118th edition of the circus. This show featured a Moroccan acrobat named Tahar, who still holds a world record for supporting 12 men, all wrapped around him, as he stood still. Tahar also did a tumbling act as well as an alligator wrestling act, Lough said.

Also, in that show were two trapeze acts, the Flying Vasquez featuring Miguel Vasquez, and a second trapeze act, the Flying Caballeros. 

“I saw the greatest human achievement ever in circus that year,” Lough noted. “Miguel Vasquez, of the Flying Vasquez, had been catching the quadruple somersault for a couple years. He was the only one in the world. The other flying act we had on the show at that time, the Flying Caballeros, had a male flyer who had started catching the quad in practice. So it began. The circus would have simultaneous quadruple somersaults. That was absolutely unprecedented!” 

The ringmaster would exhort the crowd to put “all eyes on the trapeze,” for this first-ever feat; the band would stop playing and the crowd would fall silent, Lough remembered. 

“It was so quiet in that arena that you could hear the swoosh sound as the flyers swung back and forth. First up, Miguel Vasquez ... Bam! He caught it! Then the Caballero flyer ... Bam! He caught it! The arena went wild! Backstage everybody watching -- which was everybody -- went wild! We knew we had just seen history -- not just circus history, but human history being made!”

Unfortunately, Lough said, the two lead trapeze artists’ egos ultimately got in the way, culminating in a backstage fight -- involving baseball bats -- between the troupes. 

Lough finished 1988 with the Blue unit, moved to Seattle for a year then moved to Japan with the clown college program. While in Japan, Lough would meet a young Japanese clown, Elizabeth; they would marry and work in the Kinoshita Circus in Japan for several years before returning to the U.S. and RBB&B.

Circus life is like being part of a big family -- it has to be, Lough said. For one, the work never ends; set up begins the moment the circus train pulls into the next destination town and tear down/load out starts during the last show in that town. In fact, the circus system is so efficient the U.S. Government, just prior to WW II, actually studied the RBB&B circus to learn how the circus moved people and equipment, Lough noted.

One also learns to sleep anywhere, anytime, at will, Lough noted.

“On the train runs, especially, when the train is rocking gently side to side, and you hear that click-clack, click-clack, click-clack from the steel wheels, and there is no guilt because there is no work to be done except to rest and recuperate, there isn’t better sleep anywhere,” Lough said. “When you wake up, and you walk down to the pie-car (dining car) and you smell all kinds of different nations’ cooking in the hallway and you laugh and share a meal or a story with somebody from the other side of the world, just as tired and happy as you are, you just feel love -- that simple love of being alive -- like puppies and children just naturally show with no pretense.”

It isn’t all work and no play, Lough said. The train stops every few hours so the animal crew can take care of the animals. When that happens, everyone immediately starts searching for sundries such as newspapers, smokes, beer and other such treats. Because the water stop only lasts an hour or two and the train usually stops a mile or two from the nearest town, finding a store and getting back before the train takes off can be a real adventure, he said.

“A friend of mine, Bald Irish Mark (that’s the circus way to name you -- distinguishing feature, nationality, name and sometimes department you work in) and one of his concession buddies got off the train at a water stop in Texas somewhere near the Mexican border,” Lough said. “They went searching for real Mexican tequila. A couple hours passed, we heard the ‘whoosh’ of the air brakes and the train started to move. All of a sudden, here comes a dust-covered taxi trying to catch up to the train riding right alongside us. The back window rolls down, a beautiful sombrero pops out, then a hand with a bottle of tequila and we see Bald Irish Mark with a big grin on his face. He and his friend were yelling and laughing ‘stop the train!’ and waving the tequila bottles around.”

Needless to say, the two missed the train, Lough said.

“They showed up the next day still wearing their sombreros and holding their tequila bottles,” Lough said.

Another factor is the close quarters in which everyone lives, Lough said. His first year, Lough lived in a 3 foot wide by 6 foot cubicle on a train car with 18 other clowns. They shared two toilets, a two-burner stove and sink and each person shared a dormitory-sized refrigerator. There were no showers on the train; everyone showered at the headquarters building set up at each stop.

A few years later, Lough, Elizabeth and their two trained Jack Russell Terriers lived in an 8 foot long by 7 foot wide room on the band car; they shared two toilets and two communal showers with the circus band.

The last year they were with the circus, they “lived in luxury” in an 8 foot by 12 foot quarter train car with a private shower, toilet and small washer and dryer, he said.

“After a year in that 3x6 train room, my concept of space was completely eliminated,” Lough said. “It’s almost like the Buddhist idea of getting rid of the ego. It sounds crazy, but if you tried it, you might find the same thing.”

Even the people you don’t know are family, Lough said.  Once, a friend and fellow clown decided to make a pot of home-made Hungarian goulash -- his grandmother’s recipe, no less -- and he and Lough spent about half a day drinking beer and prepping the ingredients. Soon, the aroma of goulash was wafting all over the train. By noon, hundreds of circus people stood in a line two train cars long, bowls and spoons in hand. 

“That train car was packed,” Lough said. “The crowd stood, eating goulash, telling stories and laughing for about two hours until all the goulash was gone. People still talk about it 17 years later.”

Another time one of Lough’s dogs, Grock, accidentally ate a box of rat poison before they had to shoot a television spot. They rushed Grock to a veterinarian for emergency treatment. Grock survived, but the outcome would be uncertain for many days. 

The day after it happened, Lough was walking Grock when one of the elephant trainers, someone he barely knew, walked up and asked him about the situation. The two chatted for about a half hour, Lough said. 

“He wished us well and said he liked Grock because he had spirit,” Lough said. “Then as the days went on, more and more people -- from all departments -- would ask how Grock was doing. I was shocked and moved.” 

When the dog fully recovered, Lough made it a point to personally tell everyone who had asked about Grock; everyone was genuinely happy and relieved, he said.

“I felt that kind of love where you don’t have to say it out loud and make a big fuss, but you know inside it’s there for you when you need it,” Lough said.  “That’s what I love about the circus.”

Lough believes a number of factors have contributed to the end of the circus. For one, fewer people are willing to pay for that live show experience. That may be due in part to how people interact and communicate with each other these days. He also concedes that animal rights’ protests may have been a factor, although he finds it confusing they protest the circus -- where the animals are actually treated pretty well -- but not factory farms or slaughterhouses. 

However, the bottom line is bottom line, something he certainly understands, he said. Indeed, the Loughs left RBB&B Circus for the last time in 2004 when their contract negotiations fell through, Lough said. Since that time, they have pursued other careers and do freelance clown gigs on the side.

“The great weakness of the circus is that at every second, you are either making money or you are spending money,” he said.  “Animals and humans eat every day, whether it is a work day or an off day, so the margins are narrow. I’m sure the decision to end the circus was an awful one for (owner) Kenneth Feld to have to make. Ultimately, though, half of ‘show business’ is business and the expense of such a giant show full of people and animals and the logistics of moving that show from town to town – well, it’s probably a miracle such a giant undertaking lasted this long.”

Nonetheless, while he is deeply saddened many people are going to lose their jobs in May, he has faith in their resilience, resourcefulness and spirit.

“The one thing that gives me hope for them, and for all of us, really, is that ‘the show must go on,’” he said.  “I learned that expression working at ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ but it fits and applies to all of humanity. It’s a lesson we learned from Apollo 1 and the Challenger.” 

“It’s the basic greatness of the human spirit, that attitude,” he said. 

 

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