The Port Arthur News
“Well, I’ll just run away and join the circus!”
It’s a threat made by many an obstinate child. But for Dean Kelley, that declaration wasn’t a threat.
It was an aspiration.
Kelley took an interest in the circus life when he attended his first Ringling Bros. circus in his hometown of Kansas City, Kan., at age 4. He never missed another show.
“I was like, ‘I want to do that when I grow up,’” Kelley said. “My parents were like, ‘Oh, that’s cute, he’ll grow out of it.’”
He didn’t. Although Ringling’s clown college closed its doors the year before Kelley could enroll, he sought the help of local organizations and found a place in the circus industry 11 years ago. Three years later, Kelley joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a clown and pre-show host.
“These grown adults got to run around and act silly, and the audience loved it,” Kelley said. “That put a spark there, and it manifested into this.”
The Ringling Bros. merged with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1919, and now maintains two circus-train based shows, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour, as well as the truck-based Gold Tour. The Gold Tour — a dressed-down, single-ring version of the show — has once again brought “The Greatest Show on Earth” to Ford Park, 5115 Interstate 10 South, Beaumont, July 12-14.
“It’s like a little moving city,” said Jessica Clowers, the show’s assistant animal trainer, of the Gold Tour, which boasts three female Asian elephants, three camels — two adults and an 11-month-old — and five especially well-trained dogs.
Clowers, who joined the Ringling staff three years after a stint at the zoo in her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., said wryly that she scarcely notices the pungent scent of elephant that seeps into her clothes.
“I go home smelling like an elephant,” Clowers said. “You never notice it, and then people are like, ‘You smell.’”
Aside from their questionable aroma and excessive eating habits — Dutchess, a 43-year-old, 7,500-lb. Asian elephant, consumes approximately 3-5 bales of hay per day — Clowers said the elephants actually present the least imposing challenge during training.
“Most of their act is just their natural behaviors,” she said. “And they know their music. They could probably do their act right now.”
As for the camels, their tendency to spit is often embellished, according to Clowers.
“They only spit when they’re irritated,” Clowers said. “But our camels are especially friendly, because they get so much interaction. They love it when people come up to them.”
Their intelligence also rivals that of the elephants, Clowers said. Sable, an 11-month-old male camel, is “exceptionally smart.”
And while the dogs are excitable, Clowers said, training them is simple once their strengths have been discerned. This was especially true in the case of Sophia, a mixed breed the circus acquired from a shelter.
“That dog does everything,” Clowers said. “You just have to watch their personality and see what they’re good at.”
Sophia is one of the show’s five dogs, along with two rat terriers, Summer and Button; Hank, a miniature poodle; and long-haired Chihuahua Huey.
In order to work with animals — or indeed, at a circus in general — a sense of humor is required, Clowers said.
“You have to have a fun personality and roll with the punches,” she said. “It keeps you young.”
And any expectations of keeping your clothes immaculate? Throw those out the window.
“If you’re not dirty, you’re not doing it right,” Clowers said.
Show times are 7 p.m. Friday, July 12, 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, July 13, and 1 p.m. Sunday, July 14. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased at the Ford Park Box Office, www.ticketmaster.com and all Ticketmaster locations (HEB on Dowlen Road, the Beaumont Civic Center and the Lake Charles Civic Center). Tickets can also be charged by phone at (800) 745-3000.