High Rates of Suicide Among Elders
The Alex and Ronni Show Plus Medically Assisted Suicide

A TGB READER'S STORY: The First of May

By Mary R. Wise who blogs at Red Nose

A "First of May" is circus lingo for a new performer. It comes from the tradition of circuses beginning their seasons on May 1, so if it's your first season on the show, you're a First of May.

My First-of-May day was April 1, 1976 - April Fools' Day!

I arrived in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on a very damp, overcast day with my slightly-better-than-cardboard footlocker, my brand new circus clogs and a bad case of nerves. I'd accepted the job as a circus clown with George Matthews Great London Circus on the strength of a brief letter from the owner's son.

Things got off to a bad start when I told the cab driver to drop me off at Scott Field and he replied with, "Huh?"

One way or another, we found the lot. The big top looked fabulous - a four-pole, three-ring, orange-and-white striped tent in the middle of a beautiful, green field. We found the ringmaster's trailer and I knocked on the door.

First surprise. No one told the ringmaster that a girl clown was going to be on the show. When I told him I was to be on the show, he said, "Oh, aerial ballet?"

And I said, "No, clown."

And he said, "Oh. Well, you'll have to stay in the band bus with the other clowns."

And I said, "Okay," not because I especially wanted to share living space with a bunch of clowns, but mostly because I didn't know what else to say.

Second surprise. I wasn't prepared to find that the "room" in "room and board" consisted of a plank bunk. Why was it called the "band bus"? It used to house the band.

At least the clown's quarters were walled off from the prop crew's quarters. Lucky for me the other clowns were nice enough guys. Pogo and Zippo were already there; Ralf arrived shortly after I did.

Third surprise. No donnikers. Sorry, I mean bathrooms. None. Not even Porta-Potties. Walk to the gas station or just dump where you could as long as it wasn't too close to the big top or cookhouse. And some guys did. Nice!

Fourth surprise. Clowns were expected to help with tear down, hauling the quarter poles to the pole wagon. Clowns were also expected to sell Hershey bars during intermission - we got a dime a bar.

My first night was one of the best and simultaneously the worst night of my entire circus career. The show was wonderful but the weather was ugly. Cold rain pelted down throughout the show, turning the back yard into a sea of mud.

Tear down was excruciating for everyone, especially for naive girls who had to help haul 60-foot steel quarter poles and then lift them up to the guys on the pole wagon.

The mud was so deep that all of the seat wagons got stuck, all of the tractors got stuck, even the performers' trailers got stuck. Not even the elephants could pull them out of the quagmire.

Of course, all the extra help blew the show. Because of that, all the performers had to help fold up the big top. Let me just say that clogs are not the right footwear for folding slippery wet canvas. Indeed, I fell hard during one pull and watched the canvas close over top of me. Great - killed on my first night on the circus by getting rolled up in the big top.

But I didn't die and I didn't quit. The sun came out the next day. I learned how to take a shower at the water wagon and I bought a foam pad for my bunk and work boots for my feet.

And I had the time of my life for the next three years.

* * *

EDITORIAL NOTE: Reader's stories are welcome. If you have not published here or not recently, please read submission instructions. Only one story per email.


What a wonderful story. I loved every word and felt I was there looking over her shoulder.

What a grand experience for those 3 years! The contrast to the initial struggles is a lesson in perseverance and focus to keep on keeping on.

Clowns scared me. They still might. I'll only know when I see one again.

Thanks for this, Mary.

Amazing! What a marvellous story. And so atmospheric. I felt as if I was there. Thank you Mary.

Loved this story, especially the part about almost getting rolled up in the tent. We don't often hear behind-the-scenes stories. BTW, I always thought clowns were funny and goofy. Sad that these days people think they are scary.

Hey, 'Red Nose'! You've got, as my dad used to say, "The guts of a government mule!". Except that the mule'd get stuck in that quagmire, but you 'clogged' your way thru. Do you still put on makeup and your red nose to entertain your grandkids? The word 'pistol' simply doesn't do you justice. Keep writing. And 'clowning around' - -

Fabulous story....how exciting a start to what I imagine was a long work history.

Wow, I loved your story! I dreamed of running away with the circus, but you did it! Don't hesitate to fill us in on things you did thereafter, I suspect you're one of those very interesting people.

Wow! A real live girl clown. Underneath all that makeup and clown suit I doubt if I could tell the difference.

Your story reminds me of the time we took our young son to the circus and it had been raining and continued to do so during the performance. As we left we waded in mud up to our ankles. The elephants were unable to pull the wagons out of the mud and I am wondering if it might have been the same circus. If so, I do not envy you the experience.

The performers continued with their acts for "the show must go on." Brave souls.

You got spunk, Mary! I love spunk.

Wonderful story, my hat's off to you. So many want to run off with the circus but you actually did.

Wendl - apt quote, Mr. Grant.

Wonderful story and your words so descriptive. You must have some other interesting tales to relate from those circus years. A gal in our now defunct writing group of a few years ago was my first meeting with a real live girl/woman clown as had never occurred to me a clown would be other than male.

More,please! I loved the story of your first adventure with the circus, but I'm betting there are more stories we all need to read. honor us with more, Mary! Well done.......

Great memories! Takes me back to the early '60s when I worked as a busboy at a restaurant in a shopping center on the edge of town. A few times a year a carnival would come in and we'd make a few bucks after the restaurant closed for the night setting up and taking down the carnival. Interesting folks.

Thank you all for the lovely comments! @Tim Hay - I would if I had any grandkids!

Thanks for writing this. I loved it so much that I went off to read your blog and buy your book.

Just flat out delightful. Thank you. You brought back memories of my friend Janie the clown. She died before the big top folded.

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