“It’s a make-believe world but it’s a very real world, too.”
Antoinette Concello, Aerial Director
April 1982
Picture Editor: Elisabeth Biondi


Writer Eric Lincoln and photographer Mary Ellen Mark spent three weeks with the Red Unit of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus working on this story. Both are in love with the circus.

Picture Editor: Elisabeth Biondi

Anybody who sits starry-eyed in those seats and says, "Oh, I wish were in the circus," I say you want to think again. It's a twenty-four-hour job, seven days a week. And you've got to give your heart and soul. The word that describes it is… love.
Father David Hennessey, Circus Chaplain

Danger? Oh, every second. I fear every minute they're up there. They come down, hit the cement, they're going to get all busted up. I only try to break the fall. Cut the momentum. My life for them, that's right. That's the whole story. Salvatore Condito, Working Man

I was in a convent up in Vermont. And my sister went into the circus before me. I went down to visit her, and when I saw that flying act, I thought that was the most incredible thing. I knew that's what I wanted to do.
Antoinette Concello

When I'm fourteen, I ask my mother, "Mama, can I please go with the circus?" and she think that I am kidding. She said okay. Then I ask, "Daddy, can you let me go with the circus?" And he said okay. He don't believe me, either. And then I go.
Pedro Carrillo, High-wire Artist



He (Gunther Gebel-Williams, training pony above) is now forty-seven. You should've known him when he was thirty. Like, he practiced from seven in the morning to twelve. And in between the two shows, he would practice again. And then at night he would practice like until two again…

Now, I enjoy playing video games. Gunther thinks that's for children. Okay, then I'm a child. When I was a child, I never had anything like that. We grew up in Germany. The war just finished, and there was not even food, much less toys or anything. My dream is to have -I always wanted to have an electric train set.
Henry Schroer, Animal Trainer (in performance at right)


When Gunther Gebel-Williams trains, he doesn't beat up his animas, he trains them with love and respect… Out there, he's doing Mr. Macho. And then backstage he's scratching their bellies and hugging and kissing them.
Pamela Hellett, Circus Schoolteacher

A lot of people have the false idea that these animals are either drugged or are so tamed that there's nothing to worry about. They are wild animals. These elephants, if they fancy, could kill you.
Father David

Gunther got hurt only one time really bad. When we did the American Express Card commercial. He has the leopard on his neck, and he has to say, "American Express, don't leave home without it." Well, we did it at least thirty times, and the leopard finally got so mad, he chewed up his arm… There's like a line between you and the cat. You don't cross it. If anything happens, it's not the cat's fault. Just like a little understanding you have…

There aren't many people in the world who have like five, six leopards climbing all over them. It's a very great feeling. Like you know these animals love you. Henry Schroer


I was enchanted by the romance and the mystery and the wonderful gypsylike quality that seemed to leave you free of the real world.
Mike Burke, former General Manager


Every show is a new challenge, a new thing. Every audience is different. You may be bored to tears doing those same things show after show, and at the end of a season, after eleven months on the road, maybe you are a little tired. But you must remember: this is the first time they're seeing this.
Duane Thorpe, Clown (left and bottom right)

A woman said to me: "How do you eat when you have makeup on like that?" I said, 'Well, I put the food in my mouth and I chew."
Chuck Sidlow, Boss Clown

Corny as it may sound, in the case of an accident, we bring in the clowns. That is one of the reasons, historically, why they are there. You don't think of that in terms of why we have clowns, but that is one of the reasons.
Tim Hoist, Performance Director


You gotta have pride in your work. It is hard to be up all the time. I stand behind the curtain, I'm sad, maybe my girlfriend just left me-as soon as I get my nose out of that curtain, there's no hurt anymore… Once I'm out there I'll put everything I have there. Because those people are expecting that from me, and I expect it from myself.
Skeeter Reece, Clown (near left)

There's a lot of sad things that you never hear about. People get killed sometimes. They don't talk about it. We're out here to entertain people and show them a bright side of life, not to depress them and show them a bad side. Wally Naghtin, Bear Trainer

Although we feel the sorrow and pain, we've got to go on.
Father David




I think the workings of the system here are very clandestine to the media. They want a sensational story with color and glamour and glitz. They don't know the paradox of people's tragedies here. Some of the heartache. In the circus or anywhere, there are always hardships.

A guy was hurt doing his teeterboard act. I've been with him in hospitals all over the country. At one point, I called on circus fans to bring food to his wife. She would not leave him. And I made special arrangements through the hospital for her to stay there, and she slept underneath his bed.
Tim Hoist

Once I knew a circus family where the husband and wife were always arguing. It seemed like they never got along. But once they came through that curtain, everything was fine… It is traditional that no matter what, the performance is sacred.
Father David

It's really sad. All the pain, all the chances you take, and you see your kids working so hard, and all you get is that single applause. Money doesn't make no difference… People will never realize how important it is… that applause that they give.
Armando Farfan, Trapeze Artist

You call up someone, and they go, "Well, where are you?" And you've kind of got to ask someone walking by, because you forget where you are, because we're all over the place.
Mary Ann Lobaido, Showgirl (on phone, below right)


When we get to a person's hometown, some people get something together with their folks and have a big party there, and we just come… It just makes you feel good being in a home.
Serf Rocha, Clown

In the summer if the weather's real nice, we make our own parties. Everybody sits on the railroad track, brings their food, and we have a party… It is a big family. It's closer than a family.
Skeeter Reece

People ask me: "Isn't it rough for the children?" I was raised that way -I think I had one of the best childhoods that anybody could have.
Eric Braun, Clown, Dog Trainer

This life... I love it.
Ellen Mid, Wardrobe Lady (above center)


You're on the road ten months, and you can't do anything else, because when the show is over, you gotta go. You might have met someone or something -anything. But it's too late. The show's over, baby, we got to go.
Skeeter Heece (left)