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Ringling Bros.: The Circus Comes to Town
by Andrew Davis

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Pictured Ryan States, a keyboard player with the circus's band.

Maybe it's being so close to exotic animals. Maybe it's watching the amusing antics of many clowns. Maybe it's looking at toned trapeze artists as they seemingly defy gravity. Whatever the reason, the circus has something about it that lures the young and the young at heart.

The all-new 134th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® show is currently in Chicago; the extravaganza runs through Nov. 28 at the United Center. Celebrated acts include daredevil Crazy Wilson, trapeze maven Sylvia Zerbini, and clown David Larible.

( To purchase tickets, either call ( 312 ) 559-1212 or visit . )

Windy City Times recently talked with Ryan States, a keyboard player with the circus's band. He deftly handled a variety of topics, including traipsing around Boystown and dealing with sneezing pachyderms.

Windy City Times: How did you fall into this gig?

Ryan States: Around 1990, I was playing music at the University of North Texas and I saw an ad on the bulletin board one day. The ad was for a keyboard player for a band; it turned out that the circus was in [ nearby ] Dallas. I played for three months because I was subbing for the keyboard player, who was having a baby.

Then, just last February, I called to see if there were any openings—and there were. I definitely put [ my previous gig with ] the circus at the top of my resume.

WCT: Some people dream of running away with the circus. Did you have that lifelong dream?

RS: Actually, no. I fell into this and I've grown to love it. It's an exciting cast—which includes 85 animals—and I love the traveling.

WCT: Now what's the craziest thing you've ever encountered while traveling?

RS: Have you ever had an elephant sneeze on you while you were playing keyboard?

WCT: Um, not lately.

RS: [ Laughs. ] It's OK if you're in the audience. The only dangerous part might be if you're on stage when that happens.

WCT: What's your favorite part of the show?

RS: Oh, that's a tough question. When I first did the show, I was taken by Crazy Wilson; he does things like the Pendulum of Pandemonium [ which involves a globe, a pendulum, and motorcycle riders ] . There are still parts of the show where I still have to close my eyes.

WCT: Are there any drawbacks to being with a traveling circus?

RS: I don't think so. It's a great touring job for a musician. For instance, I can keep my things with me in my own room. But if I [ were ] touring with a Broadway musical, I'd be living out of two suitcases at a different hotel every night.

I have a really good thing going here. Even if I go to a city that doesn't have much there—and I'm not going to name names—I still get to travel more than I would otherwise.

WCT: What do you do during your off days here?

RS: There's quite a bit to do here. I actually grew up in [ the suburb of ] Flossmoor. It was great going back there and seeing where I used to go to school.

I also have been going to Boystown because I like to go out. Growing up, I thought that Elton John and I were the only two queers in the world. So, when I came back here, I went to different places like Gentry. There's definitely stuff to do; we're here for four weeks—so I'm really excited to be in Chicago.


Cotton candy was introduced in 1900 and was originally known as 'fairy floss.'

Baby oil is the best substance for cleaning off clown makeup.

Elephant hair is considered very lucky; many performers braid the thick hairs into bracelets.

Horse hair is used to take up additional space in clown shoes.

Wearing green, whistling in the dressing room, eating peanuts, and setting shoes on a table or shelf are all considered bad luck.

The circumference of the circus ring is 42 feet.

A young Frenchman named Jules Leotard created the flying trapeze in 1859.

Gargantua the Great was a gorilla who appeared with The Greatest Show on Earth® in the 1930s and 1940s. He traveled in an air-conditioned car that stayed at 78 degrees with 50 percent humidity.

The Wallendas were immortalized by creating a seven-person-high pyramid on the high wire.

During his American performing career, Gunther Gebel-Williams never missed a show in more than 12,000 performances.

In 1955, Marilyn Monroe made an appearance riding on top of a pink elephant at opening night at Madison Square Garden.

Uncle Sam was modeled after famous circus clown Dan Rice.

When President Woodrow Wilson attended a circus in 1916, he threw his hat into a ring, causing reporters covering the event to think that he would seek re-election.

Musicians are known as windjammers.

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