Alice Clark Brown, black star in a white circus, dies at 68

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As a young girl in Chicago in the late 1950s, Alice Clark Brown was fascinated by a TV show called “Circus Boy,” specifically the opening cut, in which a character named Corky rides a baby elephant.

“I used to really admire him riding that elephant,” she said years later.

Fast forward a few years. The child actor on the elephant, presented at the time as Mickey Braddock, became Micky Dolenz, one of the Monkees. And Mrs. Brown has become an elephant rider herself, along with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

She is believed to be the first black showgirl in one of Ringling Brothers’ two tour companies.

His riding feat, on an adult beast, was considerably more daring than Mr. Dolenz’s casual ride. On the one hand, the elephants weren’t roaming around, as she described in an oral history recorded at a circus performers reunion in 2017.

“The number was called ‘The Cakewalk Jamboree’ and the elephants were galloping out,” she said, adding, “Then they were standing on their hind legs so you were on the elephants and you were up very high. . “

And then the elephants would pivot towards the earth in a pear tree, the rider rushing forward with his animal. In other circuses, a rider may grab the harness to maintain balance, but not in the Ringling arena. Photographs from the time show Mrs. Brown triumphantly astride her standing elephant, arms raised high, her elaborate hairstyle perfectly in place.

“I had to learn to let the centrifugal force work with this so that I could stay and never stand, never never,” she said.

The effect was startling. “Looks like I’m defying gravity,” she said.

Ms Brown died on June 6 at her home in Oak Park, Illinois. She was 68 years old.

Her husband, Geoffrey F. Brown, said the cause was interstitial lung disease.

Ms Brown was only in the circus from 1971 to 1974, but she was celebrated both for her arena acrobatics – she danced high above the ground in aerial ballets – and for breaking down a barrier.

“I think the circus is fun and I’m happy to be here, not just for myself but for black people in general,” she told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1972. “It’s important that they be represented in all aspects of American life.

Alice Ruth Clark was born on August 22, 1952 in Chicago. Her father, Charles, worked at Libby, McNeill & Libby, the canning company, and her mother, Mattie (Miller) Clark, was a housewife.

She graduated from DuSable High School in Chicago in 1969 and was a student at the University of Illinois when, in 1971, the circus came to the International Amphitheater in Chicago. She worked there as a usher and the interest she had developed in “Circus Boy” was rekindled.

She tried and in December 1971 joined the circus, leaving college for the time being. She was sent to the circus training ground in Florida, where Antoinette Concello, a famous performer who was then the circus aerial director, helped her improve her dancing and overcome her fear of heights.

“Madam. Concello said, ‘Now if you don’t learn this stuff, girl, we’re going to have to send you home,’” she said in the oral history. “I thought to myself. : ‘Oh, no, I can’t let this happen.’ I started training really hard until I finally did the tricks with all the other girls, really high.

In 1972, she began to perform in shows. She also became a kind of public face for the circus, doing interviews with newspapers and with Barbara Walters on the “Today” show.

She was a rare black star in the Ringling arena at the time. In the 19th century, PT Barnum obnoxiously used black performers, showing them off in a freak-show style, and nearly a century later few had been elevated to star status.

By the time Ms. Brown joined the circus, the circus had two different touring troupes, the Red Unit and the Blue. The Red Unit had a black showgirl, Jackie Walker, but Ms Brown was reportedly the first black showgirl to be hired in the Blue Group, Heidi Connor, chief archivist at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., A told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“When I first joined it was pretty funny,” Ms. Brown told the Philadelphia Daily News after seven months on the job. “Some people acted like they didn’t like black people. Now everyone has gotten used to me and things are much better.

While touring the South, she sometimes experienced the types of discrimination familiar to previous generations of black artists.

“I noticed these Confederate flags and the John Birch Society signs,” she said in the oral history. “I thought, ‘Watch out; Be very careful. ‘ Indeed, there were places over there in the South, a few places, that would not serve me.

Most of his memories, however, were pleasant. She especially enjoyed her time on the circus train and exploring the towns where the show stopped. Her younger sister, Anna Clark, joined her in New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston and others, and they were traveling the city together.

“She was like, ‘Hey, this is an interesting place; why don’t you come and see me? ‘ Ms. Clark said in a telephone interview. “I took my first plane flight because of her.

“The world was our oyster,” she added. “We were trying to figure out how many pearls we could locate.”

After the 1974 season, Ms Brown left the circus, thinking she might travel to Europe and enroll in a small circus there, but when her mother had a stroke, that plan fell through. water. Soon after, while working as a tour guide at Johnson Publishing in Chicago, she met Mr. Brown, who was on staff at his Jet magazine. They married in 1977. (Mr. Brown eventually became one of the principal editors of the Chicago Tribune.)

While raising a family, Ms. Brown dabbled in other types of performances in the Chicago area, appearing in plays, playing the piano and singing, and appearing as appearing in a few movies.

Mr. Brown said that when his wife spoke of her circus years, “She was quite proud of how strong she had become.”

“She always said, ‘I’ve become so nice and muscular,'” he said in a phone interview.

He said she was appalled by the animal rights protest that cast a bad light on the circus in her later years because she had never witnessed mistreatment. When the circus passed through Chicago in the following years, he said, they sometimes attended, and she always made a point of seeing if anyone she had known from ancient times was among the cast and cast. the team.

About three decades after leaving college, she returned to school and earned an English degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004.

In addition to her husband and sister, Ms. Brown is survived by one son, Geoffrey Jr .; one daughter, Christina L. Brown; and one brother, Gerry Clark.

Anna Clark said that more than once Ms Concello, the airline director, asked her if she wanted to join Alice in the circus. They could work on a sister act, she suggested. But she knew she wasn’t Alice.

“I had to remind her that I was bleeding from my nose when I got on a stepladder,” she said. “I just wasn’t that brave. I was not as brave as she was.


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