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Sunday, January 15, 2017

As they say in the circus, The Show Must Go On... or that's what they used to say, anyhow.

*This iconic image, with the greatest respect for the elephants who have been retired.
Sadly, sadly, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (The Greatest Show on Earth) will literally "fold its tent" for the last time in May of this year. The circus has been a fixture in the lives of Americans since 1884 when five Ringling Brothers began in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

I was one of thousands of big eyed kids across America who lived close enough to the railroad tracks to greet the circus train as it unloaded for its periodic stop in Peoria, Illinois. And the circus embraced us by 'allowing' us to carry water for the elephants (or any number of mundane chores) in return for 'absolutely free' tickets to see the Big Top at any matinee performance. The tickets did require that any youngster with a free ticket must be accompanied by at least one paying adult--a fair trade-off us eager kids always felt.

The circus with its three performing units will leave some 300 performers and support staff without its most grandiose venue and adults everywhere without an opportunity to ooh and ahh with eager-eyed grandchildren. There will still be a few other circuses touring but not the grandest of them all.

Rising costs, valid animal welfare concerns and diminishing interest were all culprits in the demise of an institution. And for me personally, a loss of heart as I recall a beloved business partner who had a circus lineage. I wrote about him not too many years ago. He was a remarkable man with a story well worth retelling:

Warren Braren

The Story of a Circus Dog and His Famous Owner

About two years ago, I told you about my friend, Warren Braren. He was the whistle blower who brought down the tobacco industry in the 1960s, forcing its advertising off the broadcast media and into a new reality of the scourges of smoking. While there can be no telling, he may well have helped save a large number of lives by his actions. If you haven't already done so, read his New York Times obituary, Warren Braren, 82, Dies; Urged Ban on Tobacco Broadcast Ads . It, in itself, is a history of the taming of the beast.

Warren was many things and had many great stories about them all. He had circus family relatives close to his heart and he has tales to match. You may recognize his uncle, Lou Jacobs, the famous Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus clown from his U.S. postage stamp and his dog Knucklehead.

First, about the clown because who doesn't love a clown... ok, not you Kelly: According to John Goodall on Buckles Blog, a site for the discussion of circus history, Jacobs was amazing. "He zipped around the hippodrome on water skis; zoomed past amazed spectators in a motorized bathtub; chased down a cigar-smoking clown "baby" who was attempting to make a getaway in a souped-up baby-buggy. In 1948 after years of work, Lou Jacobs had perfected his most famous prop, a 2-by-3 foot, working minicar. He contorted his 6-foot-1-inch body to fit inside the tiny car
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"Lou opened the act by entering the center ring in his loud honking car. The car would start to sputter and backfire as he pulled up to a 'gas station.' His emergence from the car -- beginning with the appearance of an oversized clown shoe jutting into the air -- never failed to bring gasps of delight. Once he was out, Another clown insisted that the car was not parked close enough to the pump. Lou whacked him over the head with a mallet and a balloon welt rose on his head. The car would sputter and backfire as Lou tried to move it closer. He then removed the radiator cap, a snake lunged out and a geyser of water followed. Lou sat on the geyser only to have water squirting from the top of his head. When he stopped the flow with his hand, the water squirted out of his mouth. Finally, the car was pushed closer to the pump. The other clown climbed inside the pump and Lou threw in a bomb. The explosion sent up a dummy dressed like that clown and it floated down under a parachute. Lou closed the act by making a speedy exit in the midget car in an attempt to evade the pursuing clown cop. Needless to say, Lou was always a big top hit."

That's Knucklehead on the right
 Now about his famous dog:

Jacobs's trademarks included a tiny hat perched precariously upon his pointy head, and his feisty Chihuahua, Knucklehead, which Mr. Jacobs trained, always, to steal the show.

And, shades of Bugs Bunny, the canine played the role of a rascally rabbit, complete with bunny ears, eluding Big Game Hunter Lou Jacobs -- only to play dead when finally shot at. After Lou moaned with remorse, Knucklehead would sit back up, the pair happily reunited. Jacobs and Knucklehead remained partners for 14 years.

This is Warren's story story about Knucklehead:

"When the circus was in Madison Square Garden, I went to visit my uncle before the show. He asked me if I would please take Knucklehead to the vet who he had called earlier. Knucklehead was 14 and seemed very ill. Lou told me that because there were two shows that day, he couldn't take his beloved dog himself.

So I did. And while being examined, the dog collapsed and died, right on the vet's table. I just didn't know how I could relay that sad news.

I got back just at intermission and seeing me, my uncle rushed for the news.

"Knucklehead died while the doctor was examining him," I told him.

"He broke down and sobbed uncontrollably at his dressing table. Tears streaked his make-up.

"Then, the curtain to his cubicle parted and the ringmaster said, 'Five minutes Lou.'

"My uncle got control of himself, fixed his make-up and was ready for the second half of the performance. I watched from the back and he brought down the house as usual, as if being funny was his life. And it was.

"When the show concluded, he came back to his cubicle where I was waiting and began to sob again as I recounted the sad story in detail.

Several hours later, in front of another full house, Lou made them all laugh, again and again.

As they say in the circus, the show must go on. And amidst the laughter, he funniest man in the house was also the saddest.

This is possibly the last I will write about my friend Warren... but just one more for the memory:

Another time Warren was asked to take charge of a young, full grown lion who was raised from a cub by the lion tamer. The lion was too young to go on the first swing as the circus hit the road.

"He's as domesticated as a lion can be," he was told. "You'll enjoy his company." And Warren, always up for something fun and different, did. He often took the young lion with him in the front seat of his car as he was running errands. And many in the Sarasota area took notice. When Warren went in for a doctor's appointment, he mentioned it.

Unbelieving, the doctor decided to call his bluff. "If you really have a lion, bring him in."

Not long after, when the doctor opened an examining room door, there was Warren and the lion sitting on the table waiting for a treat.

The surprised doctor said there would be no charge for this visit as his delighted staff looked on.

Good Bye Warren and thanks. You were a rich part of my life. And good bye Ringling Brothers, you have brought joy and delight to very many of us. 

Good Bye clowns.
 







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