Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus Is a Real Circus, and They're in Staten Island

Tuesday, July 31,2001

By Alan Cabal

I’ve been spending far too much time in my apartment this summer. Last week I got word that the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus was landing in Brooklyn’s Marine Park for a four-day stand, so I hightailed it out there last Wednesday morning to catch the end of the setup and see if anybody I knew was running with the show. The circus is an incestuous industry, and after 13 years of running with various shows, I’ve reached a point where I can walk onto any lot and bump into somebody I’ve worked with at some point, somewhere.

I got to the lot at about 11 a.m. I’d originally planned to get there by 5 a.m. to watch the whole five-hour procedure from start to finish, but circus nostalgia only goes so far, and schedules that seem routine in the midst of a tour easily become unspeakable obscenities in the context of townie life. I parked the car and strolled over to the box office, where I introduced myself and received a little cloth press pass that would allow me to amble around the lot unmolested.

The elliptical red and yellow bigtop looked like a daisy bursting out of a crack in the barren landscape of outer Brooklyn. CBCBC is the real thing, an authentic traditional American circus as opposed to the politically correct, faux-traditional replicas being peddled by the Big Apple Circus or Barnum’s Kaleidoscape. CBCBC’s been around since 1884, through hard times and bad weather, perhaps the greatest extant example of circus tenacity and sheer grit. It could have died back in 1979 if it weren’t for the passion and determination of owner Johnny Pugh, who worked his way up the ranks from performer to front office to manager, in which capacity he secured the necessary funding to keep the show on the road at a time when it was nearly drowning in debt. His business acumen and his iron will have turned the show into a thriving enterprise.

I roamed alongside the bigtop to the back lot to check out the elephants. Elephants and big cats are at the center of the controversy surrounding the circus industry, thanks to the puerile ninnies of the self-styled "animal rights" lobby. Most of the idiots involved in dipshit pursuits like PETA and ALF can’t tell the difference between an Asian elephant and an African elephant, but they presume to denounce any sort of working relationship between man and beast. The Big Apple Circus caved in and told old Buckles Woodcock to pack up his elephants and take a hike after one of its sponsors threatened to pull out in response to a boycott threat. Barnum’s Kaleidoscape was p.c. from the get-go, limiting the animal acts to dogs, horses and geese. CBCBC is holding the line and fighting the good fight against fanatics who think it’s inhumane to keep a cocker spaniel as a companion.

Adam Hill’s three elephant partners looked healthy and happy as they tossed a tire around in the shade under a canopy in their camp, an area about the size of two tennis courts. Elephants like to play with tires–they’re the Frisbees of the pachyderm world. CBCBC has a vet onsite, and Hill consistently gets a clean bill of health from the USDA inspectors who drop by from time to time to check up on the accommodations. He and I chatted for a while, and I got a line on an old pal of mine named Pee Wee Pinson. Pee Wee has to be pushing 70, and it turns out he’s running a pack of elephants with some show based out in Missouri.

I saw the name "Rosaire" on the side of a truck and had to investigate. The Rosaire family is a legend in the circus industry. I worked with Derrick Rosaire for a while; he and his wife are currently working with a bunch of black bears, which I met when I visited them at their spread down near Sarasota, FL. Pam Rosaire-Zoppe worked the African-American show, UniverSoul, with her chimps back in ’97 when I was on their tent. The Rosaire family has been in the business since Christ was a cowboy and God was an Irishman, and they are everywhere. They look and act like they have a Klingon in the woodpile, but their animals are among the most pampered and well-trained beasts in the business.

I walked up to the cab of a truck with the Rosaire name on it and ran into Ted McRae. In the past century, only one recorded case of a black lion-tamer could be found, but then Ted McRae quit his job working for a trucking firm in Baltimore and stepped into the cage at the UniverSoul Big Top Circus. That’s where I met him, and he’s still at it, looking all lean and buff, not a scratch on his perfectly sculpted body. They’re Kay Rosaire’s cats, but Ted is their working partner on this tour. He’s got his wife, Renee, and three kids with him now, and everything is copacetic in Ted’s life. Renee works the cat act with him, and their kids Adrian, Dorian and Jordan are honing up their circus skills, aiming to get into the ring themselves. The cats were kicking back, dozing and grooming each other in the languid way of well-fed housecats. "They like short hops," Ted told me. "They get to sleep more."

I’m going back to see the show with my friends from the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a decidedly nontraditional show of an adult nature. It wasn’t easy to walk off the lot. The smell of elephants, diesel and popcorn arouses in me a nearly irresistible impulse to blow off all other responsibilities and run through the summer in a truck. I convinced myself that I needed a beer and drove down to Coney Island, where I got a hotdog and a Budweiser and sat on a bench staring out to sea until the thunderstorm came.