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Off To Join the Circus

By Marty Nemko

Mitch Frettis would never have been voted most likely to succeed. “I was always a troublemaker,” Mitch admits. “When the teacher’s back was turned, I’d do stuff like imitate the teacher’s mannerisms in slow-motion…I’ve always been a slow-moving guy.” After graduating from high school, Mitch’s main activity was hanging out. Career goals? Not even close.

One day, Mitch’s mother saw an article about Ringling Brothers’ Clown College. She asked him, “If I sent away for the brochure, would you read it?” He shrugged. She sent for the material anyway. With her prodding, he applied, and was accepted.

On his first day at Clown College, Mitch was intimidated: “All the other students could juggle, ride a unicycle, do magic tricks. Not me.” All Mitch could do was move slowly. When he was asked to step into the ring and try to make people laugh, he sat down in the middle of the ring to think about what to do. He just sat there with his head in his hand. As the seconds ticked, his face grew ever more pained. He wasn’t trying to be funny, but somehow, everyone laughed.

Of the 50 students, only 10 were offered jobs in the Ringling Brothers Circus. Mitch was the very first one. Somehow, his slow-motion laid-back manner made people laugh, which, of course, is a clown’s Job One.

Mitch became a mainstay of the Ringling Circus with a signature routine called “Kiss Me.” He’d clomp around in clown face with a sign that reads, “Kisses, 50 cents!” He’d then—in his slow-motion style, approach pretty women, pretty children, and ugly men, flutter his eyes (yes, in slow-motion), widen his lips (with ping-pong balls in his mouth to accentuate the effect), and, to the audience’s delight, try to wrangle a kiss.

After a number of years, even being a Ringling circus star can get old, so when an investor asked him to start a circus, Mitch jumped. He had married into a circus family, so he hired all his family members, and started a small circus in Florida.

But running a circus is very different than performing in one, so when Mitch got a call from Ringling, he was all ears. A new Ringling clown had been a fan of Mitch’s, so Ringling management wondered if Mitch might be willing to come back to mentor the new clown.

It’s now 30 years since Mitch started with Ringling, and he’s still there, not just mentoring, but in clown costume, trying to mooch smooches from the crowd.

Lesson for all of us: Look at what’s different about you—even if it’s not considered a positive attribute. Is there any way you could use it to abet your career? Few people would think that being slow-motion silly could make someone a star, but it did.

While at the Ringling Circus, I also got to talk with Sergei Douman, an aerial acrobat. At 23, he tired of the Russian national gymnastics team’s rigorous practice sessions. “I had no life,” he admits. So he joined Ringling. Today, Sergei performs “The World’s Longest Fly,” trapezing across the entire 3 rings of the main circus hall. Has Sergei ever fallen? Yes, and, to boot, he missed the net. He’s still flying. “After I fall, people really pay attention. They love blood and gore,” Sergei explains.

Lesson for all of us: (an obvious one): Even world-class performers fall. Winners get right up and start flying again.

Karin Houcke is an animal trainer with Ringling. She represents her family’s seventh generation in the circus. She trains the horses. (Her sister trains tigers and lives in a trailer with them!) I asked her, “What’s do you most want my Bay Area readers to know?” She replied “That we animal trainers are animal rights activists. We believe no one should ever beat an animal. Watch my horses during my act. When I turn away from them, they follow me. If I were cruel to them, they’d never do that.”

Lesson For All of Us: We may learn more from first-hand observation than from second-hand, politically motivated rhetoric.

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