I lived in Brooklyn, New York until I was eight years old. I remember very little of this period of my life, but one of my fondest memories is of my mother taking us into Manhattan to see the Ringling Bro. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. That was a time when clowns were still considered fun and Cracker Jacks came in large boxes and had real toy surprises inside. Well, it turns out I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed going to the circus.
When the show first opened in Manhattan for the 1954 season on March 31, it was a star-studded event. Dozens of celebrities joined in the festivities to help raise money for the United Cerebral Palsy Fund. That included such names as Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Marlene Dietrich, Art Carney, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons, and Faye Emerson, who was briefly mentioned in my 2013 podcast titled The Blaze Incident.
Yet, it was two young clowns who grabbed the headlines after the show. They were identified as Kay Mitchell of Salt Lake City and Bri Murphy of Duncan, Wyoming. The two young women, both recent college graduates, had moved to New York City seeking fame and fortune in the world of stage and television. But their story differed little from so many other struggling artists. The two rented a small apartment above a 52nd Street jazz cabaret and they struggled to make ends meet.
When they heard that the circus was coming to town, they applied for clown jobs but were turned down. Yet, they were determined to be part of the circus. The two scraped together $2.40 (approximately $23.50 today) and purchased six yards of blue and orange fabric and fashioned their own clown suits.
On opening day, the two painted their faces with white clown makeup and giant red grinning mouths. They then walked right up to the performers’ entrance at Madison Square Garden and, surprisingly, no one stopped them. For the next four hours, they strutted and tumbled under the big top lights as the crowd cheered them on. No one suspected that the two didn’t belong there and when the show was over people asked them for their autographs.
So, while I got to see the circus, those two young ladies experienced something that few of us ever will: they got to be part of the circus.