Manassas Journal Messenger 04-26-01



top times — Tigers, trapeze artists and tiny horses come to town


Lucy Chumbley



Tonight, while Prince William sleeps, 36 tractor-trailers will pull into

the Woodbridge Senior High School parking lot under cover of darkness.

At twilight’s first gleaming, a crew of 100 – plus three elephants –

will raise the big top: The circus is coming to town!

The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus is the United States’ oldest traveling

tented circus and has been on the road since 1884.

And, for 36 years, Ringmaster Jimmy James has been on the road with it.

He joined the circus at 19, worked in wardrobe and then as a white-face

clown. Now he starts the show, announces the acts, calls attention to different

feats, keeps time and, well, keeps the show on the road.

“The ringmaster is the icing on the cake – the centerpiece,”

said James in his deep, rich, ringmaster’s voice. “He’s in command.”

No small task, as the circus tours for 40 weeks of the year, putting

on two shows a day – three on Saturdays and Sundays – with only travel days

in between.

“There are no lazy people around the circus,” he said.

Circus folk come from all over the world – countries like Russia, Bulgaria,

Ukraine, France and Spain are well represented.

“You have to have the patience of God, because you’re dealing with

a traveling United Nations,” said James. “Actually, we get on


The same is true of the animals: In one of the show’s most popular acts,

Persian cats perform with pigeons, said James.

“They love each other,” he said.

Co-ringmistress Bonnie Bell has international blood. Her father, an animal

trainer, and her mother, a costume designer and aerial trapeze artist, are

both English, although her father was born in Copenhagen, Denmark.

She also has the circus in her veins: Her family has been in show business

for more than 330 years.

At age 5, Bell was doing trapeze acts. She started attending regular

school at age 7, spending her summers with the circus. But a few years later

she went back on the road, completing her schooling with tutors.

“Growing up in the circus, being a kid, you just want to do like

everybody’s act,” she said.

So she learned how. She sings and composes songs, designs and sews costumes,

does aerial acrobatic and trapeze work and works with animals. These days,

she also appears in her boyfriend Adam Hill’s act – with the elephants.

“I was always around animals,” said Bell, whose father trained

lions, tigers and horses. “I just love them – especially the horses.”

In keeping with family tradition, one of Bell’s sisters, Gloria Bale,

is also with the circus. She puts on the prancing pony pageant, taking a

group of tiny horses through their paces.

Their brother, Elvin Bale, is vice president of operations. Until he

broke his back being shot from a cannon in 1987, he was a human cannonball.

Today, he is still involved with the act, but from the other side of the


“This is home: This is where I’m comfortable,” said Bell. “But

it’s a hard life. You’re not at home for nine months of the year. There’s

a lot of driving, a lot of late nights.”

She has a house near Deland, Fla., where the circus winters. But even

in the off-season, the circus works. Circus members practice, develop new

acts, make costumes and train the animals for next year’s shows.

The circus is a small world, and creative energy is constantly brewing.

“We all have friends in other circuses traveling around the world,”

said James. “We know what other shows are doing and we get trade magazines.”

“It’s a small industry, and everybody knows everybody,” said

Bob Marsh, a.k.a. Mr. Jiggs the clown.

Marsh ran off to join the circus at 61, after the youngest of his three

children left for college.

“One of my kids was a bit embarrassed when the local paper did a

big spread on his dad running off to the circus – but he got over that in

short order,” said Marsh, who hails from High Point, N.C.

Marsh fell in love with the circus as a preschooler.

“My dad used to take me to the circus grounds over 50 years ago

to watch them unload and set up tents,” he said. “My first love

was always the circus. The older I got, the more intense this desire became.”

But his road to the circus was a long one. Marsh started doing comic

work in a traveling burlesque show in college – he has a degree in economics

– and was offered a job as a clown with the Ringling Bros. Circus when he


But life intervened. He was drafted into the army, then spent the next

35 years in sales and marketing for a North Carolina furniture manufacturing


Over the years he kept his dream alive by doing club work as a comic

and occasional guest work with the circus.

A clown at last, he is bursting with enthusiasm for the circus life:

“The circus represents everything that is good about America,”

he said. “It requires strict discipline, a high work ethic, daily lessons

in dealing with adversity and cooperation like you would not believe.”

Marsh travels ahead of the circus, visiting kids in schools, hospitals

and organizations like the YMCA, to bring good cheer and let them know the

circus is coming.

“The circus is not a kiddie show, it’s a family show,” he said.

“This is a genuine circus – like when your grandparents went to

the circus.”

Old-fashioned as it may seem in this age of computer games, DVDs and

television, the allure of the circus is still alive.

“A lot of children will come up to me and just hug me. They’ll say

they like the show, they like my costumes… It just makes you feel good

– you feel worth something,” said Bell.

“The circus – well, you would just have to be here: It’s like sawdust

in your veins,” said James.



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