A clown’s confession (or: Why I put down the red nose)

By André du Broc

I’ve spent much of my life in careers centered around making others happy. As an actor, I believed that my first responsibility was to the audience. They needed to be engaged by everything that I did on stage. This was particularly true of my time as a circus clown. If an audience’s joy depended on my dropping my pants, I dropped my pants. If it meant taking a pie in the face, so be it.

The veneer of the circus was everything I desired in a career. It was a chance to make masses of people happy, a chance to travel, and an opportunity to take my silliness very seriously. What I found backstage, however, was very different.

Audiences come to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth primarily to see two things—clowns and elephants.

I spent most of my time with the elephants. In Tampa, I had a roommate who was an elephant trainer for a local zoo, so I had a deep fondness for these animals. If you look into the eyes of an elephant, you can’t help but remark at their soulfulness. They are filled with expression. When an elephant is happy, you can tell at a glance. Back in Tampa, when the elephants were allowed to play in the water, their eyes would twinkle, and their trunks would curl up, pulling their large mouths into an unmistakable smile.

I never saw elephants in the circus make that face. They looked tired, frustrated, angry, and so very sad. I stopped one elephant handler to ask why a particular elephant had tears pouring down the sides of her face. He pointed to the welt on his face from where she had slapped him with her trunk. He then showed me his bullhook, a 2-foot-long stick with a metal hook on the end. “I gave her about 10 good whacks across her skull. Bam! Bam! Bam!” he demonstrated.

There was always a bullhook in the corner of the apartment in Tampa. The metal hook had a blunt, rounded tip. My roommate had explained that it was used to hook the inside of where the mouth and trunk met. You give it a slight tug and the elephant will move in that direction. I witnessed many of the Ringling trainers sharpening their bullhooks to dangerous points. They wanted the elephants to fear them, and the best way to do that was to inflict as much pain as possible.

King Tusk had a particularly sad story. When he came to Ringling from another circus in 1986, he was the largest traveling land mammal alive. At 42 years old, weighing 14,762 pounds and standing 12 feet 6 inches tall, King Tusk (Tommy) was spectacular. In the wild, elephants are constantly rubbing down their tusks to reduce the weight carried by their head. Tommy, however, had been prohibited from doing so for 42 years. His tusks were more than 7 feet long and put enormous weight and strain on his back. He had arthritis in his neck and back, and by the time I joined the circus, he could no longer perform any tricks.

Instead of retiring this great elephant and shaving down his tusks so that he could live out his remaining years in comfort, Ringling would have him simply stand in the center ring while two acrobats performed on his back.

Tommy was finally transferred to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 1998 after spending 51 years performing in circuses. Columbus sent him to live out his remaining years at Two Tails Ranch’s elephant facility in Florida, where at 57 years of age he was finally euthanized just before Christmas 2002.

I am grateful for the experiences that I had in the circus. I learned about who I am as a person, an entertainer, and a clown. Most importantly, I learned what dignity means. I filled my steamer trunk with plenty of it as I rolled it out of Clown Alley and away from the Big Top forever.

I will not go to a Ringling show ever again.

Tommy would have wanted it that way.

André du Broc graduated from Clown College in 1992 and went on the road with Ringling’s blue unit. He left the circus about a month later because he could no longer bear to witness the horrific treatment of the animals.

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