By Andrew McGinn SPRINGFIELD NEWS-SUN Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009
Ron Powell just happened to have a size-18 pair of clodhoppers with him.
And a red nose.
"I carry it with me," the lifelong circus fan explained.
It's a good thing, because in 2001, the L.E. Barnes Circus needed some serious help after its clown was hospitalized in Florida swamp country.
"The show," Powell said, "must go on."
So out he went, transforming himself from an amateur clown who performed magic tricks locally for mentally challenged kids to the honest-to-God real thing under canvas.
"To walk out in front of 2,000 people and do something stupid and hear people laugh," Powell said, "it's an adrenaline flow."
How Powell came to be traveling with a circus in the first place is a wild story that isn't easily tamed.
But it's one in which the lifelong Springfielder, at an age when most people have retirement within grasp, finally made his dream come true.
At age 60, he ran away with the circus.
Since then, he's done various jobs for circuses big (Ringling Bros.) and small (Culpepper & Merriweather).
He's hung posters and run the pony ride. He's been a 24-hour man, a booking agent and, yes, an occasional clown.
"Since L.E. Barnes, I've never actively looked for work," he said. "It just shows up."
His story also serves as a reminder that, at a time when change comes faster and harder, a few things never change.
"The circus is the only American institution that's still in its original form," said Powell, who turns 69 this year. "If someone from the 1790s went to one today, it would look the same."
Of course, some people wish the circus would, in fact, change. Maybe even go away.
"We've been in every state in the union except Colorado," Powell said. "They wouldn't let the elephants in. There's an ordinance. That's our friends, PETA."
By Powell's own admission, "My whole life's been strange."
During a life in retail, he sold hardware, chain saws, Western wear and shoes.
He ran a sub shop in Urbana.
His affinity for the circus, though, has been constant.
"I remember being taken to the old fairgrounds on Pleasant Street to see Ringling Bros.," Powell recalled. "I can remember my mom waking me up at 4 in the morning to see the shows unload on East Street.
"We'd get at least one major show a year. Springfield was a circus town."
And John Ihrig and Sons, his family's West Main Street hardware store, loved catering to them, selling shows everything from feed and rope to bullwhips and saddles.
He joined the Circus Fans of America club in 1962, providing coffee to passing shows.
In 1963, on one such goodwill mission to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, Powell told a group of performers he'd like to be a clown — little did he know, they were all clowns.
"That afternoon," he said, "I was a clown. They took me into Clown Alley and I became a clown. My face is still the same face they put on me."
He asked to be made up as a tramp clown in honor of his hero, the great Emmett Kelly.
The clowns took it a step further, though, letting Powell perform with them.
"I just stood there like a big goof and let them do whatever they wanted to do," he said. "I was beyond hooked."
Flash to 2001, when his son announced he was heading to DeLand, Fla., to do press for the now-defunct L.E. Barnes.
Powell jumped at the chance to tag along with his nervous son.
"It was a circus fan's dream, really, to be in the winter quarters and watch this whole thing come together," he said.
But Powell became something more than a fan when he was asked to be the show's 24-hour man — the guy who drives ahead of the show to mark the route with arrows and check on permits.
He agreed to try it, so he called back home to his wife.
That was March.
"I never saw her," Powell said, "until Labor Day."