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Circus people meet on Long Island to reminisce as show closes down

Former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus dancers and clowns gathered in Miller Place on Saturday May 20, 2017, to reflect on their experience on the road performing in what was billed as the "Greatest Show on  Earth," as the circus puts on its last show ever. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey delivers its final circus at Nassau Coliseum on Sunday night, it will be an especially poignant moment for a group of former performers who are going to be in the audience.

“It’s hard to believe it’s really going to end,” says Al Rios, 48, who toured as a clown with the company for six years. This weekend, his Miller Place home is serving as a gathering point for his fellow circus alumni in town to see Sunday’s last 7 p.m. show.

“These people have come from all over just to spend a few days together and tell stories,” said Rios, a special-education teacher at Eastern Suffolk BOCES. “We worked with each other and lived together 24/7 on tour so we’ve built such a bond.”

As guests arrived Saturday, the atmosphere was that of a high school reunion. Posters from various shows adorned the walls, people flipped through old circus programs on the coffee table. This is no ordinary group of friends: They are, as they call themselves, “circus people.”

“Our community is like its own civilization,” said Sandy Sears, a circus dancer/show girl in the ’90s who flew in from Colorado. “If I reached out to any of them, they’d be there. That’s just how circus people are — loyal.”

Peggy O’Neill-Hull, 54, traveled from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to be among her friends. “It’s a family atmosphere,” said O’Neill-Hull, who was a Ringling Bros. clown for four years in the early ’90s. “We take care of each other.”

It’s a blow to see the Ringling Bros. era ending. Jeff Schott, 33, of Louisville, Kentucky, points to technology.

“If you can look up stuff on your smartphone, then why go to a performance for two hours?” asked Schott, who worked as a clown with Ringling from 1988 to 1998. “We try to make things quicker and better for ourselves, but we lose the nuance of the moment.”

Sears, 50, feels the younger set has lost interest in the art form.

“I don’t think there’s that ‘wow’ factor anymore for kids,” she said. “This is definitely one of those things that may seem a bit boring to them now.”

When circus people get together they “cut up jackpots” — circus-speak for telling behind-the-scenes stories. O’Neill-Hull recalled a stunt dubbed “morale” that Rios and his fellow clown buddy Jon Weiss pulled to get everybody laughing and amped up right before a show.

“Al and Jon would try to attack each other with baby oil because it takes your make up off,” says O’Neill-Hull. “Then they would have to run to put it back on to make the curtain.”

Expectations are especially high for the current performers going into Sunday’s last show.

“I think they are going to blow us away because they will be so emotionally charged,” Rios said. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. There’s not much call for someone who can do a quadruple somersault.”

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