I'm a member of the Clown College Graduates Facebook group -- a diverse set of folks if there ever was one, even if we do have that elite educational institution in common. On May 1, one of the clowns posted his "First of May" experience, so I figured I would do the same.
Now, a First of May is a performer who has just joined the circus. 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 -- yeah, April Fool's 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 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?"
Well, 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, "Well, 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. So I knew I'd be living with the other clowns, but 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. (Zippo was wrapped up in his sleeping bag when I arrived, a lovely wine carafe full of pee on the floor beside his bunk. Very high class, no? I'm happy to report that he changed that behavior immediately.)
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 (I think).
My first night was one of the best and simultaneously the worst night of my entire circus career. The show was wonderful -- great acts, a straw house, good gags -- 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.