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The Circus' Fourth Ring

For the 'Greatest Show on Earth's' performers, life outside the big top is anything but glamorous. Despite hardships, it's a job many are drawn to.


FRESNO — "How tall are you?"

"How big are your feet?"

"Have you ever been recruited by the NBA?"

In city after city, Aurengzeb Khan--formerly a cabdriver, a bouncer, a security supervisor--endures these three questions with a waning half-smile, sitting atop a makeshift throne in an outfit that gives him the gaudy aspect of a genie. This is Year 1 of his two-year contract as the "World's Tallest Man" in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and, frankly, he says with a chagrined look, there are days when he thinks, "They don't pay me enough."

Khan is part of the circus' "freak show" (not Ringling's phrase; the preferred designation is "sideshow sensations"), a decades-old tradition that has been resurrected this year as the circus searches for a fresh spin on its 128-year-old franchise (in addition to Khan, at 8 feet the tallest man, there is Michu, at 33 inches the smallest).

Other innovations in Ringling, which arrived in Southern California on Wednesday for a dizzying 44 performances in four venues over three weeks, include "The Three Ring Adventure," an interactive pre-circus event where patrons are invited into the arena an hour before show time to mingle with the clowns and acrobats and specialty acts like Mysticlese, the "Master of the Mind," who walks on lightbulbs.

But mostly, the circus is still the circus--an anachronism on wheels, a United Nations traveling the railways of America some 49 weeks of the year, nomadic and self-contained and apparently able to beat back the forces that always threaten to make an old-timey circus extinct--the movies and television and techno-toys aimed at kids, the protests and boycotts from animal rights activists alleging abuse of the circus animals. Amid this, the Vienna, Va.-based Ringling Bros. circus, owned by Feld Entertainment, reportedly made $95.5 million last year.

Not everything about the circus calls to mind a long-lost era; these days, the ringmaster uses a wireless microphone and the big top has been replaced by arenas with corporate names. These days, the "World's Tallest Man" has a pager number.

But Ringling Bros. is still an alternate universe of circus families, circus marriages, circus people, a place where a 46-year-old Hungarian physical education teacher can reinvent himself as "Nikolai, The Iron Jaw," able to bend steel in his teeth.

The circus couples include Angel Quiros, the 34-year-old Spanish high-wire walker, who is married to Michelle Ayala, the 28-year-old Mexican "hair hanger," both of them from families of circus performers dating back five and six generations. There are many Central and Eastern Europeans, Bulgarians, Russians, Hungarians, Romanians. There is a Pakistani (Khan). This year, there's a group of African performers from Gabon.

Some 360 members of the cast and crew travel the country in the Ringling train; others ride in trailer homes or their own cars. Downtime is spent poking around a new city, looking for a Laundromat, doing some quick grocery shopping, re-stocking the supply of videos, making phone calls (there are no personal phones on the train).

Some haven't known any other way of life and hope they never do.


"This is like the Peace Corps, it's the toughest job you'll ever love," says Alan Ware.

Ware, 30, a clown, steps off the Ringling train and onto the parched earth of Fresno in July. Already, Emily Sullivan, Matthew Morgan and Mark Gindick, fellow twentysomething clowns, have set up lawn chairs and are smoking in the impossible heat. It's 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the circus has just arrived from a weekend engagement in Phoenix.

For the next five days, the nearly mile-long train will remain parked here, on a desolate stretch of track on the outskirts of downtown Fresno, the only view that of nearby warehouses and the only shade offered by a highway overpass.

There are 18 clowns in each of the two Ringling Bros. units (red and blue) that travel the country. All have to go through clown college, then another series of auditions to earn a spot on Clown Alley. Clowning doesn't pay much (they laugh when a reporter asks if they make as much as $15,000 a year), and the circus provides them only transportation and a "roomette," a roughly 4-by-8-foot living space. Meals aren't covered. Neither are incidentals, which for a clown can include lots and lots of Baby Wipes and talcum powder. Many performers have what are called "cherry pie jobs": They help with load-ins, with rigging, to earn extra cash.

But if you're in your 20s and want to see the country, why not ride the rails as a circus clown? That seems to be the collective attitude of Gindick, 22, a film student at the State University of New York at Purchase; Morgan, 24, from Sherman Oaks; and Sullivan, 21, from Montevallo, Ala.

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