Back to her days under the Big Top
Circus 'family' stirs performer's memories
Juggler Lanka Smaha performs. Alyce Blum, 93, and her brother were abandoned at an orphanage in Pennsylvania when she was 6 years old. They ran away and joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and learned to be performers. She now resides at Manor House ACTS Retirement Life Community in Seaford.
Written by James Fisher
The News Journal
Mar. 6, 2013
SEAFORD — When she was a girl, Alyce Blum used to run away from her Pennsylvania orphanage every summer to join the circus.
“I climbed right out the window,” she said.
With her older brother, Jack, she hitchhiked to Florida and connected with a circus troupe entertaining crowds during the Great Depression.
Now 93, Blum lives in Manor House, a retirement community in Seaford. But she can easily recall details of her traveling life as far back as the 1920s, as a child ensconced in a world that children all over are amazed by.
“I’m never sorry I did it,” Blum said Wednesday. “The circus is my family.”
Her family paid her a visit that evening, when four performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus dropped in at Manor House ACTS Retirement-Life Community for a surprise session with Blum.
Alyce Blum, 93, and her brother were abandoned at an orphanage in Pennsylvania when she was 6 years old. They ran away and joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and learned to be performers. She now resides at Manor House ACTS Retirement Life Community in Seaford. The clown is Dean Kelley.
Staff at the center had planned a trip with her to see the troupe perform at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury, Md., this weekend. But they kept her in the dark about Wednesday’s visit right up until the moment she walked into the dining hall to find the four performers in full costume.
“We’re here to celebrate Alyce Blum!” said ringmaster David Shipman, dressed in a sparkling green-and-blue coat, as clown Dean Kelley presented a beaming Blum with a bouquet of flowers. Kelley, juggler Lanka Smaha and animal trainer Catherine Carden then performed a few tricks for Blum and the other residents.
A photo on display at Manor House shows Alyce Blum posing with a big cat in 2004. ALYCE BLUM PHOTO
As Blum tells it, her circus years were a wonderful way to grow up. She performed high-wire tricks, riding Indian motorcycles across the ring from a great height, and glided among tigers during shows. The motorcycles “were heavy machines, but they’re powerful as heck,” she said. “I never fell off. Never got hurt, ever, at all.” None of her exploits, night after night, ever seemed dangerous to her, she said.
“I didn’t know what danger was. Your parents taught you that,” she said. Hers abandoned their children – Blum and her brother – when she was 3 years old. “I always wanted to be shot out of a cannon, but they wouldn’t do that with me.”
She became friends on the road with Emmett Kelley, famous for the character of “Weary Willie,” the original sad-faced hobo clown of the Depression. Once she turned 9, she said, she began collecting pay from the circus, but before then, the troupe fed, sheltered and clothed her and her brother.