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It’s no small move to go from playing Mephistopheles in Oak Park before an audience of 200 to blowing a whistle in Madison Square Garden surrounded by 18,000 fans.

It’s no small thrill, either, to set off “the greatest show on earth,” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Jeffrey Steele, a Chicago actor who used to merely con his lines, now uses a stopwatch to coordinate the activities of 19 elephants, a dozen baboons, 26 clowns, 16 dancers, two human cannonballs, several generations of daredevil aerialist families, and a 16-member troupe of Zulu warriors.

Steele was happy enough as a founding member of the Body Politic ensemble, one of many theaters he performed at over the last 15 years. But three years ago Steve Smith (a former classmate at the Goodman School of Drama who’s now dean of Ringling Brothers’ Clown College in Venice, Florida) offered him a job. Steele: “Over the years I worked with Steve on many of his clowning projects in the Chicago area. I became known as a ‘gag man,’ a writer of comic bits.”

Steele taught character and gag development at the tuition-free clown college, and that gave him a taste for sawdust. “The more I worked with the circus, the more I wanted to be a part of it. I’d worked hard with the prospective clowns during the ten-week course at the clown college. Many students went on to become clowns with the touring units. I was left behind . . . until now.”

Now, in addition to stage-managing, Steele gets handed such challenges as planning dinners for the Chinese acrobatic troupe, locating a laundromat to wash 500 bed sheets, and lending a sympathetic ear to a clown who’s down. In all, 300 people travel and live in the 44-car circus train: performers, staff, the working men formerly called roustabouts, and concessionaires. Steele’s train has 27 coaches plus stockcars and flatcars for the ornate prop wagons and tents; surprisingly, the whole show can be torn down and loaded in only four and a half hours.

Circus performances happen a dozen times a week, 11 months a year–after a one-month shakedown period of rehearsals in Florida. Because this is Steele’s first tour as assistant performance director, the circus folks call him a “first of May,” a term for greenhorns that derives from the day the circus used to leave its winter quarters to go on tour. Steele’s job is to provide hands-on assistance to performance director Sarahjane Allison; together they coordinate the 32 acts in this 118th edition of the best-known circus in the United States.

One of the first pieces of on-the-job training Steele received was: “Always keep your eye on the animals.” He explains, “I learned that when four zebras suddenly came right at my face.” It’s a lesson everyone in the circus picks up fast: though the 100 circus performers speak 11 languages, everyone knows one English expression: “Watch your back!”

Today Steele’s duties require him to gently chide Tahar, the Moroccan alligator tamer, for sleeping through a press interview, make sure the expensive blankets and howdahs are removed from the elephants (it was raining as the animals queued up to enter the Chicago Stadium), and keep curious audience members from getting too close to the animals.

As each act ends, Steele’s whistle cues the next–it’s a signal to the band, the 90 hardworking stagehands, the lighting and sound engineers, and veteran singing ringmaster Jim Ragona, another Goodman School of Drama graduate. Ragona and the clowns must distract the audience between acts, directing their attention and making them laugh. Steele also works with three ring bosses, one for each magic circle. He also checks the work of his Polish floor boss, Kashik, who’s responsible for securing, among other things, the riggings, the nets, and the air bag inflated under the Whirling Wheel of Death.

Steele tries to keep from getting squished as Axel Gautier’s pachyderms rush around the outer ring during the “spec” (short for the lavish spectacle that closes the first act); this year’s takes the theme of a “safari fantasy.” The other production numbers are the opening, the elephants’ and riders’ “menage” (pronounced “manage” and short for “menagerie”), and the finale.

The busily anarchic clowns come on as “track acts” (they perform around the rings) as the animal trainer sets up. In one educational bit, a clown with a giant mouth gets brushed and flossed by another carrying a huge toothbrush and floss like rope. Before he blows the whistle for the animal act, ringmaster Ragona checks to make sure the clowns have “hit their blow-offs”–that is, reached the punch line for their gags. The last clown must have squeezed out of the tiny clown car before the animals come on.

These wild animals–Steele points out that they have not been drugged, declawed, or defanged–have a logic all their own. According to Wegmann, you’d better watch out if a tiger swats a Saint Bernard, because the dog transmits a fear that will incite the cat to more violence. The cats are well worth keeping an eye on: if a cat turns toward you, then suddenly swivels and lifts its tail, you’d better make tracks–the males can shoot a spray from 15 feet away, and their stench is, well, memorable.

For Steele as much as for the audience, this is one show that never gets dull. Besides, he says, “If you get depressed or homesick, there’s always someone there to lift your spirits.” It bothered Steele at first, though, that he was out there in full view of thousands of people, and in a tuxedo, but not actually performing: “I was sure everybody was watching me–that bothered the actor in me since I wasn’t performing.” But, as ringmaster Ragona points out, the circus’s oldest trick is to direct the audience’s attention–otherwise there’s just too much to take in–and that’s not toward Steele.

For an ex-actor to discover he’s not as noticed as he feared may prove bittersweet–but in what theater could Steele stop an audience member before she lifts her kids into the ring, telling them to go “pet the kitties”?

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus plays at the Rosemont Horizon, 6920 Mannheim in Rosemont, through November 13, with matinees Thursday through Sunday and three shows on Saturday. Tickets are $7-$15, with $1.50 off for children under 12. For reservations call 559-1212; for information about performances call 635-6600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Booz.