Thursday, May 1, 2008

First of May

To circus people, "First of May" means a newbie, a rookie, a newcomer. It's what they called the young kids who ran away from home and joined up as roustabouts as the circus moved around the country after coming out of Winter Quarters - if you called a kid a "First of May" it meant you thought he'd be so disenchanted with circus life that he'd be gone before the first of May.

Did I ever tell you about when I worked for the circus?

Oh, that's right, I guess I did.

When I worked for the circus, I didn't think I was a "First of May." I joined Ringling's Monte Carlo Unit after working a summer for the Big Apple Circus. Plus, I worked in the theatre. So I didn't think I was new to show-biz when I decided to fly to Venice, Florida, and work as the lighting technician for a new, innovative single-ring European-style circus that Ringling was rolling out.

But, in fact, I did have a lot to learn. I learned how to sleep on a train. I learned how to keep stuff in my train compartment from falling down during rough travel. I learned how to drink slivovitz on travel days with a family of Bulgarian teeterboard artists who bunked in the train car next to mine.

I managed to stay out of the clutches of our French ringmaster, and a Spanish slack-wire performer, even though they were pretty darn cute, and flattered me by flirting shamelessly with me in their ever-so-romantic accents.

And I learned that circus people will voluntarily help herd an escaped tiger back to its cage, but if a chimpanzee gets loose, they'll leave the premises because chimps are "stronger and meaner than you with teeth This Big!"

I adopted my first dog while I was on the show, from the Detroit animal shelter, and instead of house training him, I had to "arena train" and "train train" him. When I ran out of dog food and couldn't get to the store, the animal crew gave me tiger-cub food for my puppy - packed in chubs like Jimmy Dean sausage.

I called spotlights for the show, and on our two-week stay I got to know the guys from Local #2 IATSE at the International Arena in Chicago pretty well. They took me to the track on our day off and taught me how to bet on the horses.

We opened in Hartford, Connecticut on a cold February day. At the time, I didn't know the significance of Hartford to the circus, but you can Google it and find out.

We travelled all over the US east of the Mississippi. The plan was to play the eastern half of the nation in the first 6 months, and then play the west during the later part of the year.

But the show didn't sell. So in June, the train rolled back into Venice, back to Quarters, and we closed. And I went back to New York, and back to the theatre again.

I took my dog with me. His name was Trouper, and for 16 years he lived up to his name.


Logan Jacot said...

I really enjoyed your post. There is actually a new movie out called The First of May.

Take care,
Logan Jacot

JCK said...

Is Hartford where that wonderful Circus museum is? I remember going there as a kid, although my foggy memory is of it in Bridgeport.

I love this Circus story. More please.

Margaret said...

Nice story, you should try out this site
you might meet up with some old friend from your circus days....

M. Bouffant said...

Real train riding on a circus train? Not to pry, but when was this? And surely they don't do it any longer do they?