If Jim Ragona, the classically trained actor who is ringmaster of the Ring-ling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Blue Show, had applied for a job like his a hundred years ago, he would have been laughed out of the arena. A ringmaster then had to know horses; his job was to stand in the ring with a whip and control the equine acts, which at that time constituted most of the show. It was, rather, the equestrian director, a field marshal in a swallowtail coat, who presided unchallenged over the entire performance and exercised the whistle-blowing authority and stentorian flair that have more recently become the ringmaster’s trademarks. The greatest equestrian director and model for all modern ringmasters was Fred Bradna, an Alsatian aristocrat with a pencil mustache, who joined Barnum & Bailey in 1913 and retired from the combined show in 1946. Ragona, who was hired in 1983 at 28, hopes to last even longer.
Circus people are superlative junkies. When I started as a ringmaster, I got a lot of flak from some performers. They’d ask, “Why aren’t you calling me the biggest and the best?” If you don’t put enough adjectives before their names, you hear about it. That’s because the circus is the last bastion of real stars. Okay, granted, Barbra Streisand is a real star. She’s my absolute idol; I should die if I met her. But when was the last time she risked her life in front of 20,000 people?
Take Pedro Reis, of the aerial act The Survivors. This is a man who 13 times a week climbs 40 feet in the air and does a forward somersault into a catcher’s hands. No net. If he misses, he dies. Believe me, it’s not the money. To do that you have to think a great deal of yourself. You have to have that little safety zone of self-assurance, which is called stardom. That’s not me. I’m an actor. I’ve had a lot of experience onstage, but I’ve never risked my neck.
Any actor would be lying, though, if he didn’t say that what he really wanted was to be unique. Not rich, not famous, but unique. Being a great actor was never in the stars for me. I earned my master’s in fine arts in 1977 at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, and I learned my craft well. But I also learned I am not gifted. I was always cast as the leading man’s best friend. Most auditions I was too tall, too ethnic, too something. But when I tried out for the ringmaster’s job in Chicago, I thought, “This is for me. I was born for it.” I never had that feeling before.
Now I’m unique. True, the other Ringling Bros, unit, the Red Show, also has a ringmaster, Dinny McGuire. But Dinny and I have totally different styles. He’s a laid-back Californian; he wants a friendly rapport with the audience. I want to awe them. Also, Dinny’s not announcing these acts, in this show. So as I see it, I am the only person in the world who does what I do. That is what will keep me here until they take me out feet first.
When I put on my makeup before the show I twirl a grease pencil in the cleft of my chin. For dramatic effect. A ringmaster should be big, dark and incredibly handsome, all of which I am. And, yes, a little oily. People respond to that—they don’t go to the circus to find the cure for cancer. The circus is not unlike sex, to tell you the truth. There’s a little feeling of danger involved in just being there.
The hard part of my job is convincing people that what they’re watching is real, not like TV. So I have to be dramatic in my delivery and put in the pregnant pauses. A lot of actors are accused of acting from the head up, which also comes from television. When I point to someone, which is called “styling,” I use my whole body, and it can be seen from the rafters. I once styled to someone so strongly I pulled a muscle in my right armpit. I had to wear a sling for a few days and style with my other arm, which felt as weird as writing lefty if you’re righty.
I blow my whistle four times during the show. I remember when I was granted each of those whistles, because they’re like prizes, signs of trust, doled out sparingly by Charly Baumann, the performance director. I was here five months before I got my first whistle. Timing is important. Don’t start until the applause has crested or you won’t be heard. Give it a nice flamboyant roll and stop it at the height of the crescendo. I once blew the whistle so hard the pea inside it went up my nose. Another time I let Georgi, the 4-year-old son of Miss Nelly, the contortionist, blow it while he was eating a cookie. Then I got up in front of 10,000 people and blew cookie all over my face.
In the circus a greenhorn is known as a “First of May,” because that’s when the show used to leave winter quarters for the road. I made all the First of May mistakes, like not knowing the superstitions. For instance, you’ll never see peacock feathers in the arena. Don’t ask me why. Mark David, the trapeze artist, was designing a new cape for himself. I said, “You know, Mark, peacock feathers would be perfect for the collar.” He just about died of shock. When I was hired I felt I looked bad in the top hat, so I leafed through pictures of old ringmasters to see what they wore. Well, they were always carrying the hat. When I asked around I found out the ringmaster never wears his hat in the ring because it signifies death. I have three different top hats now and I have never so much as tried one on. I have no idea if they even fit.
Part of what brings in the audience even today is a freak-show mentality. And that’s okay, we play to that. We’re not creating that curiosity, that desire for a thrill, we’re satisfying it. Which, you might argue, is the basis for prostitution. But the difference is, we’re doing it in a wholesome way. So Michu, the 33-inch man, and Rudolph Delmonte, the contortionist, are treated very much as stars here. And if you look at contortions as what this person has been able to do with the body God gave him, you’ll see an art form, not a freak show.
In a way, I’m very much a kindred spirit with people like Michu and Rudolph. I’m not your normal, run-of-the-mill person. Growing up in Scotch Plains, N.J., I was a fatty. The kids in the neighborhood used to call me Hippo and The Big Ragu. I was shunned. When I was just 12 or 13, I weighed 200 pounds. Many times I was accused of being a sissy, but I never had a fight in my life. One of the reasons I’m a ringmaster is I have an incredible gift of gab. I can talk my way out of anything.
My father was an executive with the Pueblo supermarket chain, and I have fond memories of him and me cooking together. As far as I was concerned, there was never a problem so devastating that a bag of potato chips and a quart of ice cream couldn’t solve it. What finally happened was that in high school puberty hit like a brick wall. I leveled off at 6’2″ and 175 to 180 pounds. I’ve been within 10 pounds of that ever since.
From not being liked as a kid, I think, stems my great desire to win approval. Yet at home I was always the center of attention. Spoiled rotten, thank goodness. My sister, Judy, who’s eight years older, was the levelheaded one, the great student, and she took the grief for anything I did wrong. I was the free spirit, Mom’s favorite, real cute. I couldn’t imagine not being applauded for anything I did. I went into acting to win the approval of people who don’t know me. That’s where it’s at for me.
Oh sure, that kind of attention is very plastic. But I remember as a kid sneaking under the tent at Palisades Amusement Park to see the circus. The way Harold Ronk would introduce Hugo Zacchini, the human cannonball, I’d nearly wet my pants. I still remember Harold Ronk as if it were yesterday. Now I look into the audience and I see lots of little Jim Ragonas. I know I have an effect on those kids.
When I was in the audience it made me feel better about myself to see that somebody was willing to take those chances, to know that bravery exists. I’m obsessed with bravery in others, and I suppose it’s no coincidence I’ve made a career of calling attention to it. My mother, Mary, is my role model for courage. When I was 13, she came down with a sizable brain tumor. Its growth was arrested with radiation, but the tumor remained, and it crippled her. She spent six months in the hospital, then went immediately into a nursing home, where she has been ever since. She’s coherent, but not in control physically. I would have thrown myself out a window years ago if I were her, but she didn’t. Imagine facing her reality every day and still wanting to get up in the morning. That’s bravery to me.
In my mother’s room, on the wall facing her bed, she has what I laughingly call The Shrine of St. James. She calls it, Pictures of My Boy. It’s a bunch of circus banners surrounding a huge poster of me and several photos of me with President Reagan when he came to the show at Easter. I send her things to add to it as often as I can. I may joke about the shrine, but if I’m just a little part of why she wakes up every day and goes on, that’s worth five or six lifetimes to me.
My father and I are estranged at the moment. When my mother went into the nursing home in 1968, they told us she wouldn’t live out the year. So then it was seven or eight years of waiting for the phone to ring every day. Finally we decided that no matter what they said, she wasn’t going to die. That’s when my father fell apart. He couldn’t deal with it, so he decided to go on with his life as if she had died. He simply disappeared about 10 years ago, moving to Florida. Last year he divorced my mother and remarried. But if you decide to have a marriage with somebody and something happens to that somebody, your responsibility doesn’t end. I’m her son; my responsibility didn’t end. For some reason he thinks his did. I hate to set myself up as judge and jury, but I can’t forgive that.
In the circus we take care of our own, defend our own and make love to our own. Circus families go back four or five generations. I’m not born to it; not many ringmasters are. It was a hard thing to overcome. I learned everyone’s name and became conversant with every single person in the show. The circus has many levels of status and reward, from workingmen at the bottom, to showgirls and clowns, to performing troupes, to—at the top of the heap—individual performers. What surprised me is that the ringmaster has such a high status, considering I don’t really do anything or risk my neck. I think it’s a holdover from the days before the modern ringmaster, when the equestrian director ran the show.
The more you’ve trekked through the muddy train yards and paid your dues—put in your bones, as they say—the better you’re treated. I’ve done nearly 2,000 shows. In the theater, that would make me a veteran, but in the circus I’m just a newcomer. There’s a lot more I want to do as ringmaster as I gain experience, like help create the themes for the show itself. And here’s the biggie: It seems to me if you’re announcing a tiger act you ought to do it from inside the cage. I would love to have the nerve to do that. But in reality it’s more a dream than an attainable goal. I would have a hard time convincing the tiger trainer, let alone the tigers.
When it comes to physical danger, I admit I’m a weenie. And it may be true I’m running away from responsibility. Living on the train, I’ve got no rent to pay, no utility bills, no sidewalk to shovel. When the train moves, I can’t be reached and my room is my sanctuary. It can be a very safe, cocoon-like existence. I make a little less than $25,000 a year. That should prove I’m not just doing this for the money.
I learned early from my mother: Life is what you make it. I could have gone into my father’s business and be sitting behind a desk now making 10 times more money. That’s what he wanted. And don’t think when I joined the circus that the people I studied acting with said, “Wonderful. Good move.” They said, “What are you, crazy? Chuck the classical theater?” I saw more than the carnival they saw. I saw a chance to be unique.
If taking that stand was brave, if getting up before 10,000 people 13 times a week is brave, then I guess I am brave. Right now, I have the applause of all those people. In the future I’ll have more salary, more perks and more influence. Hard work is rewarded here. Loyalty is rewarded. In the circus, all things come to those who wait.