Sawdust in my veins

A Maryknoll brother laments the end of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’

By J. Francis Dolphin, M.M.

The circus has been dear to my heart since I was a small boy. As a missionary brother, I have even made the circus and its people part of my ministry. So learning that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would close this May after 146 years of entertainment was very sad news indeed.

The circus is in my blood—sawdust in my veins, as the circus folks say. My dad’s two brothers, Chester and Everett Dolphin, were circus jugglers, and my dad, who used to walk the slack wire at the Boys Club in Worcester, Mass., wanted to follow them on the road—until he met my mom, Mary Anne Jackson from County Fermanagh, Ireland, who wanted to raise a family.

Growing up in the Dorchester section of Boston in the 1940s and early 1950s, I remember going to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Boston Garden early in May. My father bought us peanuts to feed the elephants that were such an integral part of the circus. Dad, who also juggled, knew the acts and great jugglers of the time, such as Massimiliano Truzzi and Francis and Lottie Brunn, all with Ringling.

When I was a young teenager, I would greet the arrival of the circus in Boston Garden each year and watch all the equipment and animals roll in. After Boston, the circus would begin its summer tour. I always felt sad seeing the circus leave town. Then I would go around the stores and ask for the circus posters that had been pasted in the windows.

As a youngster I dreamed of going with the circus, and would practice my juggling and clowning. I even had my very own red nose. But God had other plans. I entered the Maryknoll Brothers’ novitiate in 1957. Even then, I would take seminarians and other brothers to the Ringling Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I was good friends with Harold Ronk, the ringmaster, and such famous clowns as Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly.

In a way, life with Maryknoll is like being in the circus, because mission life is moving around, traveling. That’s part of what attracted me to Maryknoll. As a missioner, I was assigned to Chile in 1972. No matter where I’m at, I always look for the circus, and it was no different in Chile during my 25 years in ministry there, or in Bolivia, where I’ve been for the last 14 years.

When the circus comes to town, I go to visit and get to know the performers and see if they need anything. In Chile I started a ministry to help circus people who are on the road. They need spiritual support. They need to have someone listen to them.

One of the wonderful things about circus life is that it is very much a family lifestyle. The performers have very strong bonds. They have to work together. You often have the mother and father performing, and sometimes the children and maybe their aunts and uncles too. Circus life and skills are passed from generation to generation.

In Chile I did some clowning and a little juggling with some of the circuses. In Curico, I started visiting the children’s hospital as a clown in full makeup, but it actually scared the children. So I switched to just using my red nose and hand puppet, “Kiki,” that I bought in New York City. The children enjoyed Kiki because he too speaks Spanish. Being a clown also helped me when I was teaching English as a second language. You have to clown around to make the students relax and respond. So I would put on my clown nose and the students would have fun and forget their self-consciousness while we conversed in English.

Last year Ringling Brothers decided it would no longer be traveling with elephants, and that was a big reason for the drop-off in attendance that is finally making them close the show. While I’ve never seen elephants mistreated in the years I’ve been hanging around circuses, I understand the strong feelings of animal rights groups to protect them.

I turned 80 in March and have been following circuses for more than seven decades. I’ll miss the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I know how it feels to watch the circus leave town—and worse yet, to say goodbye for good.

Featured Image: Brother Frank Dolphin has used his red nose and hand puppet, Kiki, to entertain hospitalized children and teach English as a second language. (L. Monahan/Bolivia)

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About the author

J. Francis Dolphin, M.M.

Father J. Francis Dophin grew up in North Quincy, Mass., and as a teenager worked as a clown with the Ringling Brothers and Clyde Beatty circuses in Boston before joining the Maryknoll Brothers in 1957. He worked as a missioner in Chile for 25 years and has been serving in Bolivia for the past 14 years.