- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

It’s two hours before another performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s 133rd edition of the Greatest Show on Earth, and a cloud of white powder surrounds Bello Nock’s face.

Mr. Nock, who is known as Bello the Clown with a signature 8 inches of red hair that stands straight up, slaps on additional layers of stage makeup. He adds a streak of blue eyeliner, blush to his cheeks and the tip of his nose, thick lines to his eyebrows and pink to his lips.

On March 25 at the MCI Center, the Greatest Show on Earth is holding its first night in the Washington area.

Mr. Nock’s two daughters, Amariah, 10, and Annaliese, 6, sit side by side as they do their schoolwork in a makeshift dressing room. His son, Alex, 14, plays on the computer. The week before, the family was in a similar dressing room in Baltimore, and in mid-April they will be in another one in Charleston, W.Va.

That’s life and school on the road for the Nock family.

“It’s tough, but life is what you make of it,” says Mr. Nock, who is 35 and a native of Sarasota, Fla. “Every week is a different city, but you have to make it home.”

• • •

Mr. Nock and his wife of nearly 15 years, Jennifer, travel an average of 48 weeks a year as part of the Red Unit, one of two units touring for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey with 98 performers and another 177 staff and crew.

The Nocks drive separately from the 56-car train that transports most of the Red Unit performers. Those who have an animal act or families can choose to travel separately in their own motor homes, a total of about 10 to 15 families and performers. The Nocks take a 78-foot RV and a semi-truck of circus equipment, leaving behind their central Florida home for most of the year, where Mr. Nock has “a playground of circus toys.”

In a typical week, Mr. Nock has Monday and Tuesday off, as does most of the unit (though some staff members work on Tuesday to set up ladders, nets and cables and the stage set). After the Nocks arrive in each new city, they look for a restaurant for Monday’s dinner and tour the area on Tuesday.

Mrs. Nock says that finding the local post office, grocery store and occasionally the doctor’s office is “the hardest part of being on the road,” along with having to pack every week. “It’s neat, too, because we’re always together.”

Performances begin on Wednesdays and typically continue through Sunday with one to three shows a day. That’s when Mrs. Nock, who studied early childhood education for two years, home-schools their three children, giving them the freedom to take off Monday and Tuesday to be with her and their father.

“In regular school, you have to go every day and go at a certain time,” says Annaliese, who is in the second grade. “We can do it just whenever.”

The Nocks agree that even if Mr. Nock worked a 9-to-5 job, they still would choose to home school their children.

“I want my kids to have that consistency. I want to know what they’re taught and how,” Mrs. Nock says.

She oversees and helps her children with what they learn in video school, which provides lessons videotaped in a classroom setting. “They work individually, and I can help them as they need it,” she says.

As Amariah, a fifth grader, says, “I like it because in the classroom, you have to keep up with what the other kids are doing.”

• • •

Ask the Nocks if their children are missing out on time to spend with others andthey’ll say “No,” explaining that their children socialize and play with the children of other circus families who are of different ages and cultural backgrounds.

The Nock children are not missing out on physical education or recess, either. Mr. Nock’s part in home schooling their children is teaching them what he knows, including how to walk on a high wire, balance on a large ball and ride a unicycle, which teaches them eye-hand coordination and balancing skills.

However, he does not want his children to feel they must become circus performers. “I love teaching them to spark more interest in them,” he says, adding that he lets them play all they want.

Amariah and Annaliese take gymnastic lessons from one of the performers, who contracts out lessons, and all three can take music and other lessons provided by the performers.

“You get this different group of people with different talents. We all try to take advantage of learning from each other,” Mrs. Nock says. “We try to have normal things people would have in their every day life. We try to make it a community here.”

The Nock children get to see North America and the world as they travel with the circus. At each stopping point, they might take field trips to tourist sites, museums and aquariums that are made part of their lessons.

“Our kids actually get to see those things,” Mrs. Nock says, adding that when they return to Florida, their friends tell them, “‘That’s so cool.’”

“It’s normal for our kids …They take it for granted everybody gets to see all these different places,” she says. “My kids don’t have those boundaries. It’s not like there’s an expected way of life.”

As a child, Mr. Nock was not expected to perform, though he is from a seventh-generation Swiss circus dynasty. The Nock family began performing in 1772 in Switzerland and, in 1840, formed the Nerveless Nocks, a name that reflects their bravery in daredevil stunts.

“That’s not why I’m here today. I’m here because I love it,” says Mr. Nock, whose own family did not travel with a circus but contracted out its performances. “What is the circus? It’s everything that you want it to be. That’s what keeps me here.”

Mr. Nock began performing at age 3, when he dressed as a clown for a Dumbo circus routine. When he was 6, he played the role of Little Michael Darling in a touring version of “Peter Pan,” and at 9, he walked on a 9-foot low wire when his family began performing in the Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show in Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

After finishing school, Mr. Nock started doing aerialist acts and daredevil stunts on a contract basis, partnering with his wife, whom he met in the third grade and is his first and only girlfriend. She performed aerial and stunts with him for five years, admitting that she never would have done so if it were not for her husband.

When the Nocks had their first child, they decided to have one parent stay at home. Mrs. Nock was the one to stop performing and hasn’t missed it, she says.

“Bello is a performer. That’s who he is. He couldn’t stop,” she said.

Mr. Nock’s stage name derives from his birth name, Demetrius Alexandro Claudio Amadeus Bello Nock, a string of names that describes his lineage, according to Constance Adler writing for bestofneworleans.com.

After doing the stunt work, he worked with a circus in Mexico for five years, along with performing as a comic daredevil in several television stints in Mexico , then joined the Big Apple Circus, where he worked for three years. In 2000, he joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the pinnacle of a circus performer’s career, he says. A year later, in July 2001, actor and vaudeville clown Bill Irwin, writing in Time magazine, called Bello one of “only a few clowns I love to see again and again.”

Mr. Nock considers that kind of accolade to be a “great honor,” but at the same time says, “I don’t even consider myself to be a clown. I’m not a clown. I’m a daredevil that makes people laugh.”

He explains that clowns are expected to get a pie in the face and have their red polka-dotted underwear exposed.

“To do what has been done is not interesting for me,” he says.

• • •

Mr. Nock, known as a comic daredevil, also is a gymnast, actor and musician. He plays 12 instruments, including the guitar, violin, trumpet, trombone and drums, and speaks five languages, English, German, Italian, Spanish and a German dialect spoken in Switzerland.

He can bungee jump, use the teeterboard, trampoline jump over elephants and walk the high wire using his feet, a miniature bicycle or a motorcycle. He also performs as a human cannonball and is skillful on the skyscraping swaypole, which he shinnies up and balances on, as he sways from side to side.

“That’s what I love, the physicality of everything,” he says. “I naturally love making people laugh, entertaining and being different…. I was the class clown at public school and at home. That’s who I am.”

Melinda Rosser, a spokeswoman for the circus, considers Mr. Nock to be “a big kid himself.”

“He has an energy that does not stop,” she says.

The first thing anyone notices about Mr. Nock is his hair, which he has worn in the same way since he was 12 years old. “I walk around like this,” he says.

Another thing about Mr. Nock is his smile. The audience “laughs at me. It makes me euphoric, and I want to give more,” he says.

As Mrs. Nock says, “The Bello you see in the ring, that really is his personality. … He has a natural comic personality. He couldn’t have created it. He couldn’t have planned it. It’s God’s gift to him.”

In all of his years of performing, Mr. Nock has never missed a performance, he says. “It’s not a work ethic. It’s a love and a passion.”

• • •

Ringmaster serves as emcee

Johnathan Lee Iverson of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has a voice that booms as he says, “Let me hear you scream.”

The 6-foot-5 Mr. Iverson wears the traditional attire of a ringmaster — top hat, tails and boots — but there’s a difference: His coattails sparkle with spirals. As the major design element of the show, from the custom-made elephant blankets to the costumes, these spirals suggest the mid-air acrobats and the motion-packed performances of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s 133rd edition of The Greatest Show on Earth.

“Where’s Bello?” Mr. Iverson asked the audience on March 24, a special night reserved for an audience from the National Institutes of Health before opening night March 25 at the MCI Center. “Where is he?”

From a cacophony of light, color and sound, the 133rd edition singles out Bello the Clown, the circus’ red-haired comic daredevil, and animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel, who in separate acts works three rings of Asian elephants and a cage of 10 Bengal tigers. New this year, the tigers’ growls can be heard from microphones attached to the pedestals Mr. Gebel uses in the act.

“I was born and raised in the Red Unit,” Mr. Gebel said, alluding to one of the circus’ two road companies. “It’s in my blood, and it’s my life.”

Mr. Gebel speaks English and German to the animals, following the lead of his father, the late Gunther Gebel Williams, who spoke commands in German.

“Once we get out there and perform, I see all the smiles on the kids’ faces, and it’s all the reward we can get.”

Mr. Iverson, ringmaster for the past six years and a singer and actor, introduces the other acts and performers and guides the audience through a whir of non-stop entertainment.

“It’s really an act of imagination. It’s me realizing my role in the fantasy of things,” he said. “I always imagine the arena, the MCI Center in this case, to be a big mansion, and I imagine the audience to be my guests and my friends I’ve invited to enjoy this extravagant event.”

The event features the meteoric show of Bailey’s Comet, a fiery play on Halley’s Comet, the modern equivalent of the old man-shot-from-cannon act, and the Globe of Death, a 16-foot steel-gridded sphere within which the Torres brothers crisscross six roaring motorcycles within inches of each other at speeds of up to 65 mph.

“It has got to be the most thrilling edition that I’ve ever seen,” says Melinda Rosser, spokeswoman for The Greatest Show on Earth. “There’s so much action. It’s so fast. The colors are so bright, and, of course, there’s a lot of fun.”

Other features of the 133rd edition include:

• The opening parade with the entire company in all three rings.

• The Hebei Troupe, Chinese acrobats who gymnastically create three rings of spinning wheels, then balance 20-foot decorated poles on their heads and hands.

• The Imperial Chinese Lions, performers costumed as lions who romp around all three rings.

• Aerial athleticism as an aerialist leaps over three, then four and finally five elephants.

“We make sure to do everything fast and exciting, and we couple that with the beautiful costumes, the wonderful animals and the clowns, and that becomes the greatest show on earth,” Mrs. Rosser says.

The two-hour show includes a melange of high wire and trapeze acts; appearances by the zany Clown Alley clowns; dog and elephant acts; and Arabian, Friesian and Palomino horse performances.

“It’s so interesting. It’s like a festival of talent,” Mr. Iverson says. “It’s amazing how it all comes together to make a beautiful, beautiful event. It’s like watching a big jungle coming to life.”

The circus’ three stops in the Washington area tour began March 24 at the MCI Center, where the show ran through last Sunday. Its next stop finds it at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, where it opened last night and will stay through this Sunday. Last stop is the D.C. Armory, from next Tuesday through April 12.

• • •

Tonight there is a show at the Patriot Center at 8 p.m. Other shows at the Patriot Center this weekend are: Tomorrow at 8 p.m., Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5:30 p.m.

For complete schedules see the Web site at www.ringling.com/schedule. Ducats (the circus’ word for tickets) can be purchased at ticketmaster.com or by calling 202/432-SEAT or 703/573-SEAT to reserve a seat. Ticket prices range from $12 to $65.

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