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Older Performers Take Center Ring at the Circus

Clowns, fire-eaters and more still enjoying life in the big top.

Running away to join the circus has been an American escape fantasy cliché since the 19th century, when people really did it. In the book Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? author Marti Diane Smye answers, decidedly, no. Doing it, she says, could be a way of getting a second wind on life after decades of questionable 9-to-5 achievement in corporate corridors.

Older adults get the message. So it wasn’t too surprising when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, for more than 140 years “The Greatest Show on Earth,” recently rolled into Savannah, Ga., with four of 30 performers and musicians around 50 or older. The shinier and slicker Cirque du Soleil reports that they employ people in their 60s, as do other traveling troupes.

The older entertainers don’t do high-wire acts or swing gracefully on trapezes or get shot from cannons. But they please audiences with less threatening performances like juggling and clowning, and sometimes even with hairy ones like fire-eating. And they help erect big tops and maintain elephants and giraffes—exotic creatures that still make circuses special places even in the age of YouTube and Wii.

Man on fire

Ray Wold considers himself meticulous with his fire acts. “I eat fire. I spit fire. I do all these tricks with fire,” he says. At 50, Wold is hot in other ways, too, running a clown and entertainment business in Las Vegas during the day and performing in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” five evenings a week.

Boo, Wold’s clown character, performs at birthday parties and libraries. And while his clowning requires adaptability and improvising, his Cirque role—a clown that constantly catches fire—is “clean and perfect,” he says. “My comedy just gets better as I get older. That only comes with experience,” Wold says. “When I’m in front of an audience, I give 100 percent. I can’t help it. I absolutely love it.”

Clowning around

Stephen Ringold, 52, has spent his entire career as a clown, vaudeville performer or ringmaster for the Big Apple Circus. He studied drama at New York University and went to work for a theater group that used puppets, tents and other circus elements.

“We got more interested in the circus and clowns,” he said, and within a few years he had developed his clown persona: a sweet loony fellow named Meatloaf. “He’s always been goofy and dumb,” says Ringold, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Meatloaf gets into a lot of trouble but never on purpose.”

Ringold spent 20 years in the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, visiting pediatric wards of hospitals twice a week. “You have to be aware of everything around you and everything going on. Yet you’re still just going in to be a clown,” he says. “Our job is to bring joy into the room. It’s pure improv.” These days, Ringold and his partner give 200 performances a year in the New York area.

Mammoth job

Elephant trainer Ramon Esqueda, 54, was born and raised in Mexico City and attended the university there, studying communications. But the circus lured him from a career in newspapers or television. Now, 35 years later, he shows up in a gray suit sprinkled with glitter as he glides in the ring between the elephants, all but invisible for most of their six minutes in the Ringling circus in Savannah. “People come to see the animals, not me,” he says.

He’s worked with his current stars, Bonnie, Suzie and Minnie, for more than two years. All are middle-aged, in their 40s. Though Esqueda carries a cane, they mainly respond to voice commands. “Back up!” he admonishes Bonnie when she crowds too close to a visitor.

Esqueda travels with his wife and his daughter, who performed with him for a year but now is back in college. Home is a fifth-wheel RV. Many people think they want his job, he says, but they don’t consider the harder parts: cleaning up, dealing with misbehaving elephants and caring for them 24/7. Yet the hardest part, he says, is leaving elephants behind when he changes jobs. As he says, “They become like family.”

To many older adults, the appeal of the circus is durable. “Sometimes performers will bring their parents or even their grandparents along,” says Matt Cross, 53, a Ringling keyboard player. His six-person band usually contains mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, and after 25 plus years with the big top, “now I’m the old man telling them stories,” he says. “It’s weird to have spent my entire adult life in the circus.”

Vickie Elmer is a writer in Michigan.

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