The show hasn't begun yet, but the audience is already so enthralled that they don't see me as I stumble through the dark, tapping daddies on the shoulder, excusing myself, tripping over mommies' purses. I am struggling to find a seat that corresponds to the number on my ticket. This proves impossible, so I grab the first empty seat I can find that seems to be in the right vicinity. Then I stand to look back at the crowd.
As far back as the distant upper rows, hundreds of men, women and children are wearing bulbous red plastic clown noses, courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This could be a meeting of some merry cult gathered here in Biloxi. Joyful and unselfconscious in their big red noses, the audience appears to be awaiting the descent of the high priest, for they are all looking up, up, up!
Something about a circus makes a person want to look up -- there is something in the air, literally and atmospherically. I pop my bulbous red plastic clown nose onto my face and sit down because the circus is starting, and I am in the way.
The high priest of high jinks that we are all waiting for is Bello the clown. This is Bello Nock, descended from seven generations of circus performers, a family of daredevils who have been called the "Nerveless Nocks" for their calm at high altitudes. Tonight's Nock has a whole string of names describing his lineage -- Demetrius Alexandro Claudio Amadeus Bello Nock. However, like other one-of-a-kind celebrities, he goes simply by "Bello."
Formerly Bello of the Big Apple Circus, now he is Bello of the Ringling Bros. But he will forever be Bello of the amazing orange hair, which stands eight or so inches straight up from his head. Bello of the amazing feats of daring atop a motorcycle that speeds along a single cable over our heads. Bello of the amazing, unrelenting physical comedy.
When Bello smiles, you can see his back molars and his tonsils. He can't just wave at the audience; he has to wave so that the kids in the back row wave back. He can't just walk up an incline plane disguised as a ski slope. He has to walk up the incline with every fiber of his body snapping with silliness. His whole body seems to be electrified with some giddy current that shoots from nose to toes, white-gloved finger tip to finger tip, and then all the way out to the ends of his incredible hair.
Our first glimpse of Bello is the top of his hair, which dances mysteriously back and forth as he emerges from a box in the center of the spotlight. This trademark coiffure is as springy as a trained pony and fluid with its own life force. It sways extravagantly with each turn of his head, never flagging, never tired. Much like Bello himself.
"Maybe it's a wig?" remarks a nearby mommy.
"That's his real hair," her daughter answers with utter confidence, never taking her eyes off Bello. An expert already at such a young age. Amazing!
It is rare for a clown to get a solo spot in the center ring -- circus clowning is most often a collaborative effort, with stars like the late Emmett Kelly being the exception. Bello gets several solos throughout the show. But then he did not come into clowning by the usual route of attending Clown College or a similar training school, and then joining the ensemble.
No, Bello came into Ringling Bros. as an established solo performer. He is naturally silly, with the ghost of Harpo Marx appearing in one of his acts, in which he communicates fluently by whistling. Still, beneath that silliness you can't help but notice the strength of a superb gymnast who trains constantly.
Bello's best work occurs high up in the air or while being tossed by an elephant. Meanwhile, his cohorts in comedy, the personnel of Clown Alley, many of whom have the traditional education of Clown College, work the floor with the classic routines. These two varieties of clowning -- Bello's daredevil solos and Clown Alley's theatrical gags -- do well together. They prove the truth in P.T. Barnum's oft-quoted announcement: "The clowns are the pegs on which the circus hangs."
After Bello's initial routine, the curtain opens and the contents of Clown Alley spill out -- clowns, clowns everywhere, rolling, flailing and skipping around the perimeter of the floor. Clown Alley is the container for the Ringling Bros. clowns, as much as one can say clowns are contained. There is also a Boss Clown of Clown Alley who organizes the clowns and tries to make them behave.
The term "Clown Alley," from the French aller, "to go," arises from the tradition of placing the clowns' dressing room closest to the entrance, so they can rush out to the floor if another performer is injured in a terrible accident. One of the clowns' jobs is to distract the audience while the broken bodies are removed -- to preserve the illusion that everything is just fine.
Preserving illusion is the circus' whole reason for existing, in fact. It occurs to me as I watch Bello's death-defying daredevil tricks that "death-defying" is a short hop from "death-denying" -- perhaps another reason why this antique form of entertainment continues to draw millions of people. Even with the costumes and lights, there's no faking something that happens in real time without any video-generated special effects. Even the littlest kid can tell those are flesh and blood people down there and up there -- clowning around on the floor and flying through the air.
Between the daredevils and the clowns (and Bello is both), the circus helps us pretend that we will never die, and we will always be happy.
Clown lore is as ancient as the pyramids, as any halfway-educated clown will tell you. And clowns cherish their own history. The eighteenth-century funnyman known as the "father of modern clowning," Joseph Grimaldi, still lives among clowns as the source of their in-house nickname "Joey." Clowns have accompanied humans through every bumbling step of their evolution, spreading hilarity along the way, and yet offering something more subtle, as well. My favorite commentator on the history of circus arts is Federico Fellini, who wrote of these performers, "The clown is a mirror in which man sees himself in a grotesque, deformed, ridiculous image. He is man's shadow."
Yes, well that's all very nice, but you know what? Those clowns! They can't do anything right. For instance, right now one clown is trying to mop the floor, but then she accidentally puts her foot in the bucket and it gets stuck there and she can't shake it off because her shoe is the size of a pontoon. Another clown keeps dropping his cane and his hat, and every time he bends over to pick up the cane, his hat falls to the floor again. Then I notice another clown playing a flute in an effort to charm a snake out of its basket, and he's completely baffled because the charm is not working. This clown doesn't see that the snake is actually appearing from the top of his own hat.
"Look on your head!" one kid yells helpfully from the audience.
"It's coming out of your hat!" screams the kid's father.
Now, this sort of thing happens to everybody. You go through life feeling frustrated because all your efforts at success seem to be thwarted by forces beyond your control. When really it's your own shortcomings, your own blinkered incompetence, your own lack of attention to details that drags you down again and again. And everyone else can see this except you. People try to help, but then you do the same stupid thing all over again. None of us can claim to be immune to this syndrome.
The clowns are pushing and shoving each other to see who gets to stay on "Clown Survivor Island," with one clown setting another clown's pants on fire, when there is a fierce tapping on my shoulder. I am not sitting in my assigned seat. But no one else in my row is in the right seat either because none of these seat numbers make any sense. There is a man standing in the aisle baring his teeth and shaking all ten fingers. Apparently he has ten tickets for these seats, and he wants all of them right now.
The woman next to me works herself up into a proper rage, staking her territory with her purse, her daughter, her mother and her popcorn. She's not moving, she yells back at the toothy man. He goes away and comes back with an usher who might have had a career in the World Wrestling Federation before this job. He has been stuffed into a blue blazer that strains across his bulk, and his hairless cannonball of a head is of equal thickness to his neck. He also sports a wicked pointy goatee, which he now thrusts into the angry woman's face to tell her she has to move.
He leans across me to do this, so I am right in the middle of their kerfuffle. I lean far over the back of my seat to get out of their way. The angry woman spills an avalanche of popcorn, as she struggles to rise from her seat. She has a bosom like an aircraft carrier and, as she stands, the abrupt change in ballast causes me and the whole row of seats I am leaning on to tip over backwards with great suddenness and force.
I note with some surprise that my feet are in the air. Behind me, the hard edge of my seat back has crashed into the knees of the man behind me. Although he wears thick white socks pulled all the way up, this does not protect him. He grabs his knees, and with a dazed and solicitous expression on his face he cocks his ear toward his own legs. He appears to be asking, "Hey Mister Knee, are you OK?"
That's my exit cue. It's time to find another seat. I came here to see clowns, after all.
"Most people would not be comfortable dropping their pants in front of an audience of thousands," observes Jay Stewart, who is the Boss Clown. "It takes a big person to do that."
Stewart is himself a big person, wearing a small pointed hat covered in sequins and buttons. The entire ensemble, which he calls his "agent suit," includes a red and black velvet paisley jacket with enormous puffy sleeves, a dotty cummerbund, size 23 shoes, and white gloves. His face is a covered in a smooth layer of white paint, to which he has added a few slender black squiggles and loopy aquiline nose, also white.
"I think I look the same without makeup," Stewart says, scratching the back of this head. "So I never understand why people don't recognize me when I am out of costume."
Stewart exhibits what I have come to know is typical clown body language. It's impossible for him to make a point by gesturing simply with one hand. What for the rest of us would be a brief flip of the wrist, turns into a whole series of movements involving numerous other body parts, splaying grandly into the air as if connected by invisible strings and wires, all of which can be electrically activated at once by lifting one eyebrow.
Stewart's costume and makeup represent the traditional White-face, which along with the Auguste and the Tramp comprise the three types of clown characters. Each type has its own makeup style and personality. White-face and Auguste originate in the European circus tradition. The White-face clown possesses great elegance. He does not wear the grotesque out-sized red nose, and his face is completely hidden by white paint, which makes him somewhat remote. He is dignified and represents status and authority.
White-face bosses around Auguste who wears the huge red nose, and is slightly more human-seeming as more of the actual face shows through the makeup. Only his eyes and mouth are painted. Auguste is the idiot who does everything wrong, and constantly undermines the authority of White-face. Out of this tension arises comedy. These two clown types balance each other, Fellini explained. Hitler was a White-face clown and Mussolini was the Auguste, he said. Freud was White-face and Jung the Auguste.
The Tramp clown is a relatively recent American addition, Charlie Chaplin being the best example. The Tramp probably emerged after the Civil War, which turned many African-American homeless people out onto the road. (Remnants of minstrelsy can still be seen in the Tramp's exaggerated smile.) This sad-sack Everyman wears less makeup than the other clown types, so the audience can identify most strongly with his obvious humanity. The Tramp usually stands to the side, commenting on the antics of the White-face and Auguste clowns.
Stewart, who holds a master's degree in theater arts from Wake Forest University, offers another way of diagramming clown dynamics. Just look at the Three Stooges, he says. Much like Freud's architecture of the personality, which consists of three components -- the id, the ego, and the superego -- clowning consists of Curlies, Larries and Moes. "Clown Alley is a whole bunch of Curlies running around," says Stewart. "And it's my job as the Moe is to ride herd over them, which really keeps me on my toes." The Larry would be the clown that reacts to the Curly and the Moe.
Of course, these lines between characters and their duties shift all the time. We all have a Curly, a Moe or a Larry hidden inside. And any one of those might come to surface depending on the circumstances.
"Developing your clown character is the best part of clowning," says Mike Teifer, a local clown also known as M.T. Noggin. He is a 1980 graduate of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, which closed in 1997 after nearly 30 years of teaching classes in juggling, stilt-walking, how to take a pie in the face, how to throw a bucket of water while running in a circle and wearing extremely large shoes, and other skills.
After Clown College, Teifer was among the lucky few who made the cut to perform with Ringling Bros. After a couple of years on the circus road, he struck out on his own. Now he lives in Mandeville and performs as M.T. Noggin, as well as a character he calls Professor Polly Wog who offers wacky but educational science presentations to school kids. In addition to his certificate from Clown College, Teifer has a bachelor's degree in biology.
"In order to be a clown you have to look at yourself first, and you have to be honest. It's a constant test of your humility," says Teifer, who began developing his character when he was a kid. As with all clowns, he expects to maintain this persona for the duration of his career. Crafting your character means finessing it right down to the tiniest makeup details. Do I go with the big teeth or no? Once a clown makes a decision like that he sticks with it for good.
Teifer objects to the popular notion that clowns are hiding behind their character, the costume and makeup. In truth, they are showing themselves. "Your clown character comes from something that is already inside. You bring it out and exaggerate it."
When asked what part of him comes out in exaggerated form when he's clowning, Teifer answers, "Heart. A basic love of people. And you have to be genuine, especially with an audience of kids. They are the toughest audience because kids are so honest; they can spot a phony 20 miles off. So the only way to do it is to really love 'em."
Teifer recalls one of his favorite traditions when he was a member of Ringling Bros. Clown Alley. At the very end of the show, when everything was over, the house lights were coming up, and people were standing and gathering their belongings, the clowns would hop, skip and roll off the floor back to their dressing room. There, they would all shout in unison, "Love 'em and leave 'em! Now, go home!"
For Bello, developing a clown character was easy. He just looked in the mirror and there it was: himself. Bello didn't plan on being Bello. It just happened. This is the reason he does not wear a lot of makeup, nor does he use a stage name for his clown character. Bello is the name -- or one of the names -- his parents gave him.
Clowns who come from a theatrical background tend to view their clown character as a persona. Though this character might emanate from a core truth within the performer, it does seem to exist as a separate art form. For Bello, the two are completely merged.
"I am funny all the time," he says, without a drop of conceit. The Biloxi show is now over, and Bello is sitting in a bland, fluorescent-lit boardroom somewhere inside the Coliseum. He is dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, but his strawberry-blonde hair, as ever, stands at attention. "I can't help myself," he continues. "I am a ball of fire. I do not know when to stop."
This is undoubtedly true, and if Bello were not a clown, he would probably drive people crazy. When he's not teaching himself yet another musical instrument (he can play 12 so far, and he speaks five languages), he's tap dancing in the wings or noodling on a unicycle to busy himself until the next routine. So it's good that he is a clown.
The Nock family is of Swiss origin and has been performing with Ringling Bros. since 1954. Bello began performing at 6, when he played Michael Darling to Cathy Rigby's Peter Pan on Broadway. At age 9, he joined his parents and two brothers in the Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show at the Wisconsin Dells. Among Bello's key acts is the "Sway-pole Act," in which he sits atop a towering pole that's 60 feet in length and 2 inches in diameter. He learned that trick from his father, who invented it.
His father also taught Bello how to put on a spectacular show without taking unnecessary risks. "Christians like to say, 'Don't put God to any foolish tests,'" says Bello, who leads his three children in Bible studies every morning, on the road and off. Bello is proud to assert that no one in his circus ancestry has ever died during a performance.
At 33, Bello readily describes himself as an overgrown child who offers himself to his children as "their favorite toy." In other words, he'd be doing this even if Ringling Bros. didn't pay him.
"I have no idea how much money I make," says Bello. "My paycheck goes straight to my wife, who is also my manager. And she deserves all of it. I am happy as long as someone feeds me and buys me all the toys I want. And my wife does that very well." (He met his wife, Jenny, in the third grade; she retired from the flying trapeze to home-school the kids.)
Yet if Bello is an overgrown child, he's the kind of kid who trains harder than most. He appears in more than 500 Ringling Bros. shows in 11 months, with three shows on Saturdays. There is no such thing as an understudy or a stunt double -- and there are no computer graphics making him look better than he is. It's all just Bello out there. He may enjoy the fun life of a star clown, but he works like a donkey to make it happen.
"Bozo doesn't have calluses like these," says Bello, holding out his palms for inspection. His hands are like steam shovels, squared and thick, leathered over with tough, yellow calluses. These are the hands that grip the sway-pole that Bello slides down hair first and then stops himself just before he smashes at the bottom. In Time magazine, theatrical clown and performance artist Bill Irwin described Bello as "one of the strongest men I've ever known." It's impressive to see the evidence of his strength up close like this; however, it does take a little magic out of his act. Bello makes his flights of clowning appear so effortless.
Circuses depend on distraction and whimsy -- but most especially distraction. With 10,000 things going on at once in 14 different colors, you don't know where to look first, because something exciting is happening everywhere. This confusion, generated mostly by the clowns who keep up a near-perpetual flow of zany action, keeps the audience (especially children who already have short attention spans) in a constant state of surprise. All this giddy distraction also makes less noticeable the safety nets, the cables, the gristle and sinew -- all the hard work that goes into making this frothy extravaganza. There is very little "effortless magic" at the circus that has not been meticulously planned, propped up, and safety-coded beforehand.
Except for Bello's hair. Bello swears up and down his hair is completely natural. It has been this way since he was 12 years old, he says, and he wears it this way all the time, not just when he's performing. Bello also promises that, aside from a few spritzes of unscented Rave hair spray, he doesn't add anything. No fruit pectin, no super glue. His hair is truly as magical as it appears.
When I ask him if I can touch his hair, he obligingly offers it to me. Admittedly, I am a little hesitant to make such a request; hair is such a personal thing after all. But Bello is game for anything. He approaches all things -- from trampolines to reporters -- with the same open enthusiasm. His hairdo is daunting at first, but I manage to work up the guts to pet it. So now I can report from first-hand experience: Bello's hairdo is really just made of hair. With a little bit of hairspray. Amazing!