The Greatest Fucking Show on Earth
Jeff Jetton | Mar 22, 2013 | 9:00AM |

(ed note: we originally ran this story in 2010 BUT with the circus being in town AGAIN this weekend, it is as timely as ever. AND IT IS AN AWESOME STORY-so if you’ve read it before, you will enjoy reading it again, and if you haven’t-you REALLY should)

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We are going to start this story at the end, rather than the beginning, because it’s the best part.  We’ll get to the big top portion later.  Trust us, we just spent three days at the circus.  We’ll get to it.  To tell the story of the circus, though, you’ve got to get inside the circus.  You’ve got to look underneath the fingernails of the circus to see the dirt and then flip over the palms of the circus to study the calluses.  The beauty of the circus has always been its ugliness.  You can’t have a bunch of fancy elephants without a whole lot of elephant shit.

(all words: Jeff Jetton)

(all photos: Chris Svetlik)

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The Greatest Show on Earth doesn’t just magically assemble itself in your town every year.  The Greatest Show on Earth hauls ass into Everyville on the largest privately-owned train in the world, usually traveling about 350 miles from the last metropolis straight to your shitty backyard to bring you wonder, excitement and a whole lot of souveneirs.

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Fifty-nine traincars of clowns, tigers, elephants, acrobats, horses, hoops, balls, and what we’re roughly estimating as three metric shit-tons of human drama roll in the old-fashion way: on the rails.  The train is a mile long: 19 flat bed cars, 4 stock cars, 2 concession stock cars, 1 shop car, 2 generator cars, 1 pie car (restaurant) and 30 coach cars (living quarters).  This train will travel an average of 16,000 miles a year, all to bring your snivelling, whiney little brats a glimpse of elephants, tigers and high-flying, death-defying action.

 

Gone are the midgets and bearded ladies of yesteryear.  And Lydia the Tattooed Lady? Not anymore.  Today’s circus is a high-flying, highly-produced spectacle that’s fun for the whole family.  But especially the kids.

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Let’s be honest, though, who wants to see a kiddie show?  We want freaks and sword swallowers, fire breathers and guys who eat crushed-up light bulbs.  And midgets. We want midgets. One has to ask, in the days since Jackass and Weeman and Japanese reality shows, is the circus still relevant?  Or is the circus just a relic of a bygone era, still ticking away like that great-grandfather of your friend who is 103 and refuses to give in?

An honest attempt to answer those questions, could only be made by spending a fair amount of time in and around the circus. So, based on a rumour we’d heard that the Barnum & Bailey’s train was sitting in the trainyard down on 32nd Street SE in Anacostia, we drove down and started poking around.

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We ducked under a couple of trains, climbed over a couple more and made our way to the wrong side of the tracks:  the Barnum & Bailey’s train was hidden from the view of anyone who wasn’t looking pretty damn hard for it.  But once you find it, you can’t look away.  Where every other train in the yard is a rusting heap of coal-moving steel, the B & B train looks like a shinier, happier version of the Acela.  It screams awesome.

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The yard was empty.  At first we thought we were the only ones there, which might make some sense considering the Greatest Show was actually in full swing at the Verizon center at that very moment.  But then, off in the distance we saw a very tan, long-haired dude smoking a cigarette by the train.  We approached this fellow, who was a spitting image of Chris Cooper’s character in Adaptation.  It was remarkable.  He had the same Floridian accent, the same cocky cool.  This guy was John Laroche.  He had probably even collected fish at some point.

Only he wasn’t Laroche.  He happened to be Tommy, the guy in charge of the Greatest Show on Earth.  We had stumbled upon the one guy in all of the trainyards in all of the towns in all of the world that could quench our thirst for circus lore.  And damnit if he wasn’t ‘Upper Management’ and wasn’t allowed to have his picture taken, but hell, we didn’t need to take his picture.  He’s got a doppelganger:

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Tommy IS the circus.  He’s a living, breathing carnivallian incarnation.  You can see in his eyes all of the crazy stories, the madness and sadness, excitement and adventure of a life on the road.  He’s one of the coolest guys we’ve ever met.  Within two minutes of making his acquaintance, he dipped into his private traincar to grab a twelve pack of Bud Light to share with us as we stood around and talked circus.

BYT: How long have you been with the circus?

Tommy: Too long.

BYT: How long is that?

Tommy: Too long (laughs).

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BYT: How big is this train?

Tommy: 59 cars, 276 people.   And about 200 people in the motorhomes.

BYT: So the motorhomes follow the train wherever it goes.  So you guys can only go wherever trains can go?

Tommy: We can take everything off the train with these trailers right here.  Hook them up to anything we got, drive it wherever we’re going.  We’re gonna be forty miles from Fairfax right now.  These trailers are going to Fairfax tonight.  The train stays here.

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BYT: And then you’ll roll the train to Baltimore when you’re done.  So you take everything with you?  You take your Yamaha?

Tommy: Motorcycle goes on the train.  That loads on the trailer right down there.  Right down there is an extra set of train wheels.  If we need to we raise it up and put on a new set of train wheels.

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BYT: Can we get a picture with you?

Tommy: I can’t get my picture taken, I’m upper management.

Tommy: Here comes one of the guys right here, he handles the horses.  We call him Johnny Walker.  Motherfucker don’t even drink Johnny Walker.  I drink the Johnny Walker.

BYT: Do you like your Yamaha?

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Tommy: I got a Norton and a Triumph, too.  I got a ’74 Commando, original owner.  And I got a ’79 Bonneville.

BYT: Down in Florida?  Key West?

Tommy: North Carolina.  I got a home in North Carolina and one in Key West, too.

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Tommy: But that bike there I bought off somebody here last year that got fired.  Brand new bike, aint got no mileage on it.  I paid ten (grand) for it.  (to Johnny Walker) Hey you old bastard.

Tommy: He don’t work for me, he works for the show.  But when he’s on the train, I’m boss.  Anybody who is on the train, I AM your boss.

Tommy: How you doing, you old buck?  This is Johnny Walker.

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Tommy: I’m trying to get him to transfer over to my department, so I can immediately fire him (laughs).

Tommy: How many girlfriends you playing today, Johnny?  He’s got more women in each town…

Johnny Walker: They’re not bad lookin’, neither.

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Tommy: You were with them two big ole black women.

Johnny Walker: They were over there, bothering ME!

Tommy: I seen you in the middle, you felt like a fuckin’ Oreo cookie, didnt you?

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Johnny Walker: I had to make sure what was going on in there.

BYT: What was going on in there?

Johnny: It’s a gentlemen’s club, what do you expect?

Tommy: I think those two fat women are more of gentlemen than you are.  They were biiiiig, buddy.  Johnny’s pretty good sized, but these two women…  You know how you can tell how old a tree is, right?  Cut it in half and count the rings.  Well you could tell how big these girls was by 20 pound rolls.  How many rolls was there, Johnny?

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BYT: Did he bring them back to the train car?

Tommy: They’ve got to ask permission from me, first.  And I wouldn’t allow that (laughs hysterically).  In order to get on this train, you gotta get through me.

BYT: They could’ve gone right through you, I’m sure.  Like a couple of linebackers.

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Tommy: I see them comin’ towards me, I’m goin’ the other way.

Johnny Walker: I don’t know what you guys’ seen…

Tommy: Two big ole fat asses, that’s what I seen.  Looked like Banana.  Banana’s our big elephant.  The only thing them girls’ didn’t have was tails.  Oh, I was gonna say hair on their back, but they had shirts on, so I couldn’t tell.

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Tommy: I love fuckin’ with Johnny.  Johnny’s a good guy.

Johnny: I had a woman cab driver take me twenty five miles away from the train.

Tommy: How’d that work for ya?

Johnny: (Grins widely) Ohhhhhhhh yeeaahhhh!!!!

Tommy: You guys can take pictures of Johnny, he’s not upper management.  They’re not gonna go to the post office and hang pictures of you, Johnny, because they’re already fucking there.

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BYT: You guys ever get people trying to spray paint on the side of the train?

Tommy: Oh yeah.

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BYT: You call the cops?

Tommy: We do it on our own, we take care of it.  We all like to fight.  I’m retired Navy, I don’t fuck around.  I was knocking the hell out of two guys, they thought they were gonna rob me.  I grabbed one by the throat and threw him over the fence, it took them twenty minutes to get me untangled from them.  Nobody on this train gonna mess around with me.  I may be small, but I got twenty years in the Navy, I’m retired Navy, so I don’t take shit from noone.

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Johnny Walker didn’t seem too interested in talking about fights or graffiti or trains.  Johnny Walker was a ladies man, and he wanted to talk about babes.

Johnny: I got one woman, like I said, she’s from Tennessee, I met her at the Gentleman’s Club, like I said, 25 miles away.  She’s from Tennessee around where I come from…

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After a few beers each, Tommy gave us a tour of his crib on the train. The digs were pretty nice.  We’d taken up enough of Tommy and Johnny Walker’s time, though.  It was time for us to make our trek back to our normal lives and leave the circus behind.  Tommy radioed the yardmaster to find out if trains would be moving and let them know that we’d be walking through the yard.  Apparently the trains had started moving that we had been climbing under earlier, so it’s a good thing we had Tommy to escort us out.

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But wait, there’s more.  Over the past few days we have been to the circus several times to document the experience and try to give you some idea of what it’s like.  But before we take you into the bigtop, we recommend that you watch this short introduction from Cecil B. DeMille about his Best Picture winning film: The Greatest Show on Earth.  It sort of sums up everything we have been trying to say about the circus with words and pictures.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggnE9DyX0yE

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Unless you have kids between the ages of 1 and 12, news of the circus being in town isn’t likely to have you cancelling your plans to brunch somewhere on 14th street on Sunday afternoon.  But if you really begin to understand the human story behind the circus, it becomes a whole new play, a new stage for you to watch with awe and appreciation.  The circus, friends, is the Greatest Fucking Show on Earth.

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Meet “Big” Jimbo Jones, the littlest Bigtop performer at Ringling.  Jimbo’s actually 63-years old, and he can bench-press 210 pounds.  Not bad for a little guy.  We asked for a quick interview and he granted it on condition that we not ask about his substance abuse problem that he developed while working as a roadie for Bob Seger back in the late 70’s.  We told him we didn’t even know who he was or that he had ever even had a substance abuse problem.  His eyes started welling up with tears so we changed the subject:

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BYT: How long have you been performing with Barnum & Bailey’s?

Big” Jimbo Jones: Since I was 19, so I guess that would make it the mid-sixties.  I’d venture to guess my first year was ’66.  A lot’s changed since then.  It used to be there were a lot of swindlers and thieves that found their way into the circus lifestyle.  Since we’re always traveling, it’s a good way to evade law enforcement.  When you settle down, that’s when they catch up with you.

BYT: So you’ve been doing this for forty four years?  Congratulations.  That’s quite a commitment.

“B”JJ: Well, I’ve been in and out of the business.  I’d had enough by about ’72, and I up and quit.  Started touring with [Bob] Seger.  Actually, I’ve never told anybody this before, but I co-wrote ‘Turn the Page’ with Bob right around the time we met.  If you listen to the song you can clearly hear the circus-life influence on the lyrics.  It’s a song about the loneliness and seclusion of life on the road as performer.

BYT: Come on, that’s one of the most famous songs from the 70’s.  You’re trying to tell us that YOU, what some would dub a ‘circus freak’, co-wrote one of the biggest songs of classic rock?

“B”JJ: Man, I told you I didn’t want to get into this, but you asked.  It wasn’t that big a deal for most of the 70’s.  Again, we wrote it in, I think, ’72 in a motelroom in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after a particularly long bus ride from Chicago.  I had joined the tour in Fort Wayne, Indiana after I quit the circus the first time.  Bob and I just got to talking about the depression that you can suffer from as a performer of any kind who is out on the road for long stretches.  The same monotony, night after night.  Circus performing isn’t too much different from rock and roll in that sense.

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“B”JJ: So anyways, it wasn’t a hit, didn’t even make the charts until 1976 when ‘Live Bullet’ came out.  That’s when the live version of the song blew up on mainstream radio.  The royalty checks started rolling in and I’d spend the money on coke and booze as fast as I’d make it.  I just dove head-first into that lifestyle.  Blow was what really ruined me.  I had a nasty habit.  I don’t even remember the last few years of the 70’s.

BYT: Jimbo, that’s a crazy story.  So then what happened?

“B”JJ: I found God, man, which saved my life.  That and I got a call from Kenny Feld asking me to come back to the circus.  The Felds had recently bought the circus back from the Mattel Company and were planning an overhaul and my name came up as someone who might inject some life back into the show.  They were trying to put the old gang back together.  Word was that they were even trying to bring Kneival on board.  So I made the jump back into threeringing.  That’s what we used to call it, ‘three-ringing’.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

At this point, a rather attractive women in her mid-thirties came up who most people would have assumed was Jim’s mother.  She gave us a suspicious glance, as if she’d seen our type before, looking for an expose or some dirt.  Jim planted a big kiss right on her lips and told her not to worry, that he could handle himself and he could certainly handle the media.

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****Okay, so we don’t get sued, we’ve been advised by BYT attorneys to tell you that Jimbo (not his real name) is not a circus performer for Barnum & Bailey’s and is actually just a kid who was attending the event.  The ‘suspicious’ lady we were speaking of was really just his mom.  Any resemblance to one Jimbo Jones, fictitious or real, is coincidental.  In fact, there is no Jimbo Jones, it’s a bunch of made up shit.  Sorry.****

At this point we were ushered over to one of the ‘legit’ interviews that B&B had authorized for us.  We were a little skeptical that this might be the sort of PR interview that would deflect us from really getting to the bottom of the story.

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BYT: So tell me what you do.

Tina Miser: I’m a human cannonball.

BYT: And how did you get into human cannonballing?

Tina Miser: I started dating a human cannonball.

BYT: I see, so are you self-taught?

Tina Miser: He is self-taught, and then he taught me the trade.

BYT: So are you still with the human cannonball?

Tina Miser: Yes, we’re married.

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BYT: So he goes on the road with you?

Tina Miser: He designed the cannon.

BYT: So what do they use to propel you out of that giant cannon, gun powder or is it spring operated?

Tina Miser: It’s a trade secret, I can’t tell you that.

BYT: So let’s talk about a life on the road.  We want the dirt.  Is everyone sleeping with everyone else?  What goes on behind the scenes.

Tina Miser: Well, I’m married, I’ve got a six-year old daughter.  That’s pretty much it.  It’s pretty much a big happy family, here.  We’ve got like 300 people traveling together for 2 years, so you better learn how to get along.

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And with that, we sorta checked out of the cannonball interview.  Riiiight, one big happy family.  We weren’t buying it.  So we walked over to talk to the sound guy.  He was Eastern European, so we’ll call him Sergei.  The interview is paraphrased, because we weren’t recording, but you’ll get the gist.  Basically he gave us the truth:

BYT: How do you like working here, man.

Sergei the Soundman: It’s crazy.

BYT: Lots of drama behind the scenes?

Sergei the Soundman: You have no idea.  We’ve been trying to get a reality show made about our life but the big cheeses at Ringling Bros. won’t let it happen.  Lot’s of hot girls working for the circus, it’s great.  Acrobats, dancers.  You’ll see.

BYT: That sounds like it would be a great show.  VH1 Presents: Beneath the Bigtop!

Sergei the Soundman: (laughs) yeah!

 

It seems that people can’t enough of the clowns.  Everyone loves clowns.  All we ever hear is ‘clowns are awesome’ or ‘the world needs more clowns’.  So, without further adieu, we bring you some clowns.

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BYT: So how long have you been doing this?

Clown: (awkward silence)

BYT: Uhhh, okay, what are you like once the makeup comes off?  Our friend Brock said that a lot of clowns are quite shy and reserved when they’re not ‘on’ and he said that people who are clowns are usually the ones at the party that stand in the corner by themselves and shun contact with the other partygoers.  What’s your take on that?  Perhaps clowning is an outlet for introverts where they can step into another persona for a bit?

Clown: (awkward silence, clown sticks thumbs in suspenders and hams for the camera)

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BYT: Okay, this isn’t how I envisioned a clown interview.  I’d like to know a little bit more about life behind the scenes at the circus.  We’re imagining bacchanalian orgies of circus performers with everyone bringing a little bit of their own flair to the scene: flexible acrobats, cosplay clowns, a strong man, animal handlers.  Add to that the fact that you’re all living and traveling together night after night on a train.  It must be hot and sexy.

Clown: (silence, clown does a silly dance and pulls a really, really long scarf out of his pocket, honks his nose and then runs off to a screaming group of kids).

BYT cameraman: That was weird.

BYT: Clown don’t want to talk, I guess.

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We didn’t catch this clown’s name, but he agreed to do a photoshoot with us.  We started chatting about blogs and D.C. and when we told him we were with BYT, he mentioned that he had once been passing through with Barnum & Bailey and he’d done an interview with the Washington Blade.

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We said, ‘ohhh, the Gay Blade, it went out of business’, but when we said ‘gay’ out loud amongst children and families he got a mortified look across his face, said ‘shhhhh’ and ran away.  True story.

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Apparently, America likes its clowns to be straight as an arrow.  Unlike those French Canadian clowns:

There are so many clowns at Barnum & Bailey’s you can’t even count them all.  But we couldn’t get a word in with them.  We’re going to postulate a theory here called the ‘Terrible Clown Years Theory’, which states that between the years 1972 and 2007, due to circumstances outside of the control of the clowning industry, the profession saw a rapid decline.

Between 1972 and 1978, the year he was arrested, John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered at least 33 young men and boys.  He became known as “Killer Clown” because of the popular block parties he would throw for his friends and neighbors, entertaining children in a clown suit and makeup as “Pogo the Clown”.

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But that was only a four year period, and while such a severe and brutal blow to clowning may have taken its toll, you’d expect a clowning renaissance to take place at some point, especially given Gacy’s death in 1994.  Unfortunately, the same year that John Wayne Gacy was laid to rest, a new, arguably more sinister group of clowns arose from his ashes like some sort of face-painted Phoenix, hell-bent on destroying the world’s previously formed notions on what it means to be a clown.

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Somehow, although it seems like sleight of hand or some sort of circus trick, these jokers were able to sell 6.5 million records between the years of 1994 and 2007.  And that, Virginia, is what brought the clowning profession to its knees.  John Wayn Gacy and Insane Clown Posse.  So while we were disheartened to find the B&B clowns tight-lipped and hesitant to speak, we completely understood their stance.  So we just stepped back and let them do their thing.

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After a heavy dose of clowning, we stepped out to get some beer at the concession stand.  Yes, Virginia, they have beer at the circus.  And s’mores and pretty much anything you could possibly dream up related to the circus.

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This kid was clearly, clearly on acid.  We’re not being sarcastic or snarky or making shit up.  This kid was really on acid.  He was alone at the circus with his face painted, and he was freaking out.  In an acid kind of way.  I’ve never seen such dilated pupils.

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Who goes to the circus by themselves?  What 22-year old paints their face at the circus?  Those that are tripping balls on LSD, apparently.  Who are we to judge, though, he was probably having the best time out of anyone we met that wasn’t under the age of 14.

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And then we came back for the second half of the show.  Unfortunately we were only allowed to take pictures for the first ten minutes of the circus, so you don’t get to see much of the elephants or the tigers or the trapeze or the storyline about an evil ringmaster named Mr. Gravity.  But again, this isn’t the point.

 

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So yeah, the Circus will be in Fairfax, VA until April 4th.  You’ve got plenty of chances, don’t miss it.  It’s worth the trip.  Kids of all ages will enjoy this.

You can get tickets here.  And if tigers aren’t your thing, you can just watch this video of a tightrope-walking goat with a monkey doing a handstand on his back.