Comic daredevil Bello Nock clowns his way back home
STAFF PHOTO / DAN WAGNERBello Nock of Circus Sarasota.
By Steve Echeverria Jr.
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 1:00 a.m. Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 6:43 a.m. Before growing a red tower atop his head, mastering death-defying stunts and headlining “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Bello Nock was a 9-year-old Tuttle Elementary student with the desire to master a single move — the one-arm handstand.
CIRCUS SARASOTA Circus Sarasota starts at 7 p.m. Friday through Feb. 22 at the big top adjacent to Ed Smith Stadium, at 12th Street and Tuttle Avenue, Sarasota. Cost is $10-$47; free for children under 2. 355-9335; circussarasota.org.
“I’m practicing, and I get it, and hold it for three seconds, then I fall over, jump up and scream, ‘I did it! I did it! Bello Nock did a one-arm handstand!’ ” recalled the 40-year-old during a recent interview.
“My dad says, ‘That’s great. Now can you do it three times on Saturday?’ ”
It would be one of many moves Nock would master, not only carrying on the tradition of his Italian and Swiss ancestors but creating a niche within the circus world.
And now, after nearly a decade as the “star clown” of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Nock returns home as headliner for this year’s Circus Sarasota, which premieres Friday and runs through Feb. 22 at the big top across from Ed Smith Stadium.
“There is a story with everything I do,” he said.
Like the day Nock first discovered how to separate his performances from other circus folk. Even his more talented kin.
During another grueling childhood training session with his father and three older brothers — this time on the high-wire — Nock noticed the encouragement his father gave his siblings.
“I wanted to get a better reaction, so on my first step I became a klutz on purpose,” Nock said.
“I tripped on the ladder, I stepped off the wire,” he said. “I drew my father in, and he was worried for me, and when I got to the end of the wire, he was happier than I was.”
Maybe the reason Eugen Nock was proud of his baby boy that day was witnessing the embodiment of seven generations of circus performers on both sides.
In fact, Nock’s circus roots run so deep his ancestors founded Switzerland’s Circus Nock in the 18th century.
Eugen Nock arrived in America in 1954 to work for Ringling Bros., where he met Aurelia Cannestrelli, the daughter of Italian circus performers also with the show.
The two married a year later at St. Martha Catholic Church in Sarasota, eventually having four sons.
The two veteran performers couldn’t have been more opposite, with Eugen performing the sway-pole, and Aurelia as an acrobatic ballerina.
So from the start, Bello Nock incorporated his mother’s theatrical flair and his father’s daring stunts.
“It was like having one foot in yesterday and one foot in tomorrow,” he said.
Nock started performing at 3, playing the baby in the burning house in a clown routine. By 6, he was playing Michael Darling in a touring version of “Peter Pan” with actress Cathy Rigby traveling around the world several times.
“I was taught at a young age that nothing is impossible,” Nock said.
When he wasn’t performing, traveling and practicing, Nock palled around with his Sarasota friends, first at Tuttle Elementary and later Sarasota Junior High.
Favorite childhood jaunts included Sarasota Lanes, Stardust Skate Center and Sarasota Square Mall, he said.
Although it would be years before fans would know Nock by his trademark hair, he found other ways to get noticed.
“I was this Michael Jackson wanna-be ... I would have the sequins gloves, the leather jacket, the sequins socks,” he said, laughing. “I always figured that if you’re going to make a scene, be seen.”
It is those early memories that make Sarasota a special place for Nock, who lives here with his wife and their three children.
“Sarasota is not this small town, and it’s not this big city; it’s right in the middle,” Nock said.
“Very few people look back at where they came from and wholeheartedly love it — I am one of them.”
And that’s after decades performing at arenas around the globe, becoming a worldwide sensation with dangerous feats like hanging upside-down from a trapeze connected to a helicopter circling the Statue of Liberty.
In 2001, Time magazine named Nock “America’s Best Clown,” a moniker that was both gift and curse inside and outside circus circles.
“At a very young age,” he said, “I was told that clowns are able or need to be able to do everything.”
As Nock merged clownish shenanigans and daredevil acts, the label became burdensome.
“Working at a place or in a show with many other clowns, I felt it being disrespectful if they introduced me as ‘The Greatest Clown’ or ‘The King of Clowns,’” he said.
“Do I think I’m the greatest clown in the world or in America? No. I think that I am very different.”
For Nock, the label is simple: He is not a clown but a comic.
“I’m Jackie Chan and Jim Carrey together,” he said.
And like most superstars, Nock has a physical distinction that overshadows any of his venturesome stunts.
Nock gained his most unusual trait at 11, while working a water ski show at a popular water park. He and his brothers decided to get crew cuts to make it easier to manage their hair while getting in and out of the water between routines.
“I didn’t know what sunblock was and I sunburned my head, and it just hurt,” he said. “I had a headache for a week.”
Nock let his hair grow and grow and grow. And before he knew it, there was a column of red shooting up from his scalp.
With traditional white-face, sparkling bowtie, and flashy suit, hair, charisma and stunts, Nock quickly became the face of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. During his eight-year run as the top clown, Nock was able to entertain just about anyone buying a circus ticket.
“If I’m going to ask people to spend hard-earned money to come see a show,” he said, “I want them to be able to see something that they can see nowhere else in life.”
Nock’s performance philosophy or view of the circus is not a surprise, given his pedigree and experience.
“You can travel the world and never leave your seat,” he said. “And it’s for children of all ages. When we say it, we mean it. I can deliver a joke with no words, and no matter where you’re from, three generations can laugh at that same joke.”
Now a “free agent” no longer obligated to Ringling Bros., Nock is home, joining world-class aerialists, animal trainers, illusionists and jugglers at Circus Sarasota.
“If you’ve seen me before,” he said, “expect new things, and if you haven’t seen me, then I’m like nothing you’ve seenFrom the Sarasota Herald Tribune