At twelve, I caught the magic bug, as many a twelve-year old boy does. I studied with a man named John Novak, an internationally known magician and escape artist. Novak invented new tricks and illusions, had written 25 books on magic, and served as a consultant to David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Siegfried and Roy, and other big-name magicians of that era. Earlier in his life, he had served as a translator in the Army and later the Air Force, first during the Korean War and later during three tours in Vietnam. He spoke Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and French. It was with John Novak that my love of languages was born. He owned a magic store where I worked, demonstrating tricks and spending every penny I earned on more props from that same magic store. I accompanied Novak to his shows and helped him set up. I didn’t get paid for this, but I didn’t care. He was my “master,” and I was his apprentice, at least in my young mind. I was a fast and eager learner. I soaked up sleight of hand techniques and practiced constantly. It was a lot of work, but the dopamine rush that I got when I eventually began performing was better than getting all the flash cards right. Suddenly, with John Novak as my teacher, the world was opening up for me.
My parents were not keen on what they must have seen as a strange, symbiotic relationship. They probably felt that Novak was using me for what turned out to be free labor. But the approval I got from my master, was worth any disapproval that might come from my parents. My mother, especially, was so full of disapproval that I hardly noticed any difference. You can imagine how proud they were when I announced that I was switching from magic and had decided to be a clown.
“John Novak says I can get more gigs as a clown,” I said. “And he sold me this clown costume and a make-up kit and a book on how to juggle.”
Imagine a cartoon hole in the shape of my dad in the roof he’d just gone through.
“I’m going to be a clown. John Novak says I can get more gigs.”
“If John Novak said you could get more gigs in a bearsuit, would you get a bearsuit?”
Part of me wanted to say yes, but my training as a provocateur was not yet complete. All I managed to say was that I’d paid for this stuff with my own money, which I had earned, not from them, and it ought to be my choice. I performed as a clown all through high school, at children’s birthday parties and as a busker on San Antonio’s River Walk. My parents hoped this was just a phase, but I kept at it. The more I performed, the better I got and the more I loved it. I made more money as a clown than any of my high school friends did as lifeguards or grocery clerks. I loved making people laugh and I loved the freedom I had to make fun of things, even things that one shouldn’t normally make fun of. I didn’t yet know the word, but I had discovered my vocation.
Neither of my parents had gone to college. As the oldest son who made excellent grades, they had big plans for me. But I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to be a clown.
“You can be a clown if you find a school where you can study that,” my dad said. I’m sure he must have thought that such a school did not exist. At eighteen, I was accepted into Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, an eight-week training program that also served as an audition into the circus. I passed, joined the circus in 1977, and toured for a year. This was where my understanding of diversity really blossomed.
The red unit of the RBB&B circus had roughly 300 people, a herd of about 18 elephants, various tigers and other big cats, dogs, chimps, and a donkey named Peggy. The diversity of the animals was impressive, but that didn’t interest me as much as the diversity of the people. There were families of Mexican trapeze fliers, Columbian high wire walkers, Polish trampoline artists, Bulgarian teeter-board acrobats, German tiger trainers, a British couple with a comedy dog act, a Hungarian clown, and a Dutch couple with trained chimpanzees. Dozens of languages were spoken, and most people knew more than just their own. An amazing man name Ben Said kept his trunk in clown alley, the clowns’ dressing room. He was the whip-master for the famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. This sounds like a fairly kinky job, but it really just meant that he took care of the whips and harnesses and any other leather contraptions associated with training the animals. Ben was born in Egypt and had spent his whole life in the circus. He must have been in his sixties when I knew him. He had no formal schooling beyond the third grade, but by the time I knew him he had traveled the world and spoke two dozen languages fluently. I was more enthralled with Ben Said than I was with any of the performers!
Ben embodied the cosmopolitan nature of the circus—it was indeed a “world city.” He never talked about racism or inclusivity or diversity. He just lived it, as did everyone else on the show. People had conflicts, but that was just because people could sometimes be assholes. Everyone respected each other for who they were. People worked hard and worked together. There were jokes based on ethnic humor, but nobody took it seriously. Nobody got their feelings hurt. Nobody had time for that because people were literally risking their lives every day, twice a day, and three times on Saturday. I can’t imagine anyone who lived that life ever saying, “Your words were a physical assault.” Please.