First published in The Record on June 26, 2017
Circus on the line, A Ringling Son keeps going
John Ringling North II sat on the little couch inside his Winnebago Minnie RV on Sunday, enjoying the cool conditioned air and looking out the windows. Out front stood an abandoned A&P supermarket and a Sears store that was nearly empty. Out back, 20 protesters held up signs against North’s use of elephants in his business, which is called the Kelly Miller Circus.
Outside the passenger-side windows stood a camel, a donkey and a zebra, eating clumps of hay. On the driver’s side, two elephants stood under a white tarp.
Problems ahead, problems behind. North liked the view anyway.
“If it doesn’t have elephants, it’s not a circus,” said North, 76. “It’s just a show.”
When the Kelly Miller Circus rolled into Hewitt on Sunday, it was a collision of American traditions, some of which appear endangered. There was the circus, its elephants and its human performers, who trace their history to the American Revolution.
“A lot of people think they’re circus royalty, but John Ringling North really is,” said Rebecca Ostroff, the circus ringmaster. “His family hired most of these performers’ families.”
There were the stores, Sears and A&P, two formerly mighty retail giants that went into decline long before the term “e-commerce” was coined.
And there was a third American tradition: Protest, up close and personal. Many modern protests have become almost like proxy wars, with protesters often forced by police to stand miles away from the person or event with which they disagree.
But for a while on Sunday in Hewitt, this protest was unusually intimate. People holding signs were able to walk on the sidewalk about 7 feet from the elephants and their trainer, Joey Frisco.
One sign read “The Saddest Show on Earth.”
North responded in kind. At 12:30 p.m. he took a sign that read “DO NOT be fooled by Activist Lies. Learn the Truth” and pushed it into the grass behind his RV, facing the protesters.
“I’ve invited activists to come and spend time with our elephants and trainers, and they always say no,” North said. “They’re trying to destroy something they don’t understand.”
Some protesters said they hoped the circus would evolve, not die — as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show on Earth" did earlier this year.
“I actually really love the circus,” said Melanie Gold of Greenwood Lake, N.Y., whose mother used to work for the Big Apple Circus. “I’d love to see it survive, and the only way I think it can survive is to stop forcing animals to perform.”
North is trying to save the circus, too, in his own vision. He grew up aboard the Ringling Bros. mile-long train, working as a clown and an assistant ringmaster. In the late 1950s, North’s father decided to move Ringling Bros’ performances out of the tents and into buildings, like Madison Square Garden, which were air-conditioned.
North never liked being inside. So he quit, moved to Ireland and ran his father’s cattle farm for 40 years. In 2006, when he was in his late 60s, North heard that the Kelly Miller Circus was up for sale. If he ever wanted to make a mark on the circus, he said, this was his last chance.
“The Kelly Miller Circus wouldn’t have kept going if I didn’t buy it,” North said. “Nobody buys circuses.”
The name was different, but many of the families remained the same. In the late 1930s, North’s father hired the Loyal family of bareback horse riders to join Ringling Bros. Five generations and 80 years later, North hired Christian Loyal to be the boss clown at Kelly Miller Circus.
Inside his RV on Sunday, Loyal looked up at the framed black-and-white photos of his great-great-grandfather riding in Madison Square Garden. Outside, he looked and saw elephants.
“To me, elephants are nostalgic,” said Loyal, 24. “I always have a sense of pride because I can say I work with a show that has elephants and camels and zebras. It’s the tradition.”
North may resist calls to get rid of his elephants, but in other ways he embraces change. North’s father and grandfather were famous for their expensive suits and lavish lifestyles, including construction of a massive private train car with its own dining room, mahogany cabinets and an observation room. The car was named Jomar, pairing the first names of North’s grandparents, John and Mable Ringling.
North’s tastes are rather more humble. On Sunday he wore a pair of sneakers, faded blue jeans, black T-shirt and a black baseball cap. Walking around the A&P parking lot, he pointed to the name of his RV, painted in blue script on the driver’s door.
“Jomar was the longest rail car anywhere,” North said. “So my RV is called Jomar, and it’s the smallest RV on the lot.”
Also consistent are some of the circus’ methods of self-promotion. Like all the old-time circuses, North employs an advance team that includes a traveling magician and a sign hanger, who travel a few weeks ahead of the main troupe to drum up interest.
On the other hand, North’s ancestors once teamed up with P.T. Barnum, one of the most successful self-promoters of all time, who is credited with coining the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
North’s approach to wooing audience members is subtler. Chatting with North on Sunday over the railing to the elephant enclosure, William Anthony mentioned that he likes the “Globe of Death,” a round metal cage in which up to seven Ringling Bros. motorcyclists zoomed around within inches of each other.
“Do you have the motorcycles in the ball?” asked Anthony, 54, of Hewitt.
“No, we don’t have a ball,” North said. “But we do have a motorcycle high-wire act that you’ll like even better than the ball!”
There, in front of the dead grocery store, next to the nearly dead Sears store, before the sign-holding protesters and inside the tent of a circus that nearly went broke, the circus continued on. Two elephants, 45-year-old Jenny and 51-year-old Cindy, lumbered into the tent with smiling ballerinas astride their necks. In the audience, Logan Maurice, age 3, smiled and squealed.
The elephants were a hit, but John Ringling North still knows his audience. When a stuntman revved the engine of a motorcycle and sped across a tightrope 30 feet in the sky, Logan Maurice gasped. He was so excited, he couldn’t even make a sound.
“My mom wanted him to see this because she’s worried it might go out of business because of the elephants,” said Logan’s mother, Sarah Maurice, 30. “He loves the animals. But his favorite thing was the motorcycles.”