Born To Be A Clown

It's almost time again for the premiere of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. And this year, The Early Show sent Correspondent Melinda Murphy to the circus' winter home in Tampa for a rare behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to put "the greatest show on earth" together.

This was her dream come true. She jumped right in for this assignment but declined to do the Globe of Death. There's no room anyway - with a record-setting six riders in the cage this year.

She stuck with the traditional and met Tonka. She's one of 10 elephants at the circus, trained by Mark Oliver Gebel, son of perhaps the most famous animal trainer ever, the late Gunther Gebel-Williams.

Gebel says he has a very close relationship with Tonka. It started with learning to hold little things like loaves of bread and then moved onto bigger tricks

"You're going to take your leg, this part right here and you're going to put it right in her mouth," he said to Murphy and off she climbed. The 8,800-pound gentle giant bit down on her leg and carried her.

Besides elephants, Gebel works with a huge menagerie of other animals, even tigers. And for the first time this year, the babies are miked so you can hear them growl. It's almost like being in the cage yourself. Almost.

Gebel only works with tigers born in captivity, but even though Jasmine isn't full-grown yet, she's still a real, live man-eating beast -- fangs, claws, and all! Yikes! He uses raw beef to train the tigers and encouraged the very reluctant Murphy to feed them, which she did.

Like many of the folks at the circus, Gebel is married to another circus performer. His wife, Christina, works with horses. She makes their tricks look simple.

Bello Nock can do it all. In fact, Time magazine called him America's best clown because he's so versatile. He's a seventh-generation performer. This year, he rides a tiny bike on a wire 30 feet up.

"I don't think there's such a thing as good balance. It's how fast your reflexes are," he said.

Turns out, Murphy's weren't too quick. Good thing she was not 30 feet off the ground. Maybe it wasn't her reflexes - maybe it was the hair.

She was better suited for another truly hair-raising act - like the one done way up in the air. Natalya made the rings look easy – Murphy? Well…

Falling forward wasn't too hard - controlling it was a lot tougher, Murphy found out. She never did master the rings, but Jonathan Lee Iverson sure is good at it.

"I just sing dance and smile and I'm an expert at the nod thing - you know, that takes years of practice," he said. He is the ringmaster.

But this Harlem Boys Choir graduate does have to practice his vocals. That's because he sings 450 shows a year.

"We have live music. Most people think everything's on a CD, but we have to have it live because anything can happen at anytime," Lee says.

It was beginning to look like there wasn't anything Murphy could do there until...

"You have a face just made for a pie - and I am a professional judge of that, you know," said Grandpa clown.

Clown College usually takes 8 weeks. She got one hour. But clowning is harder than you might think. Grandpa showed her the finer points of making a fool of myself.

"One foot in front of the other, baby. You ready? She's even got the walk down. I love it. Look at this. She was born to this," he said. And she took a pie in the ol' kisser during the actual performance.

The really cool thing is that Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus has added something called Bailey's Comet this year. Murphy was sworn to secrecy so she can't tell us any more than it's a finale like nothing before. But you can see it for yourself when the circus makes its way to your town this year.
  • Tatiana Morales

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