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Big Time Big Top

It's an unseasonably sunny, early spring in New York City. Vendors crowd the streets taking advantage of an unexpected influx of foot traffic around Madison Square Garden.


Jesse Highley

Jesse Highley, a UCM alumnus, finds his niche with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Pre-Show in Madison Square Garden


Under a green awning at the arena's rear service gate, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus media relations coordinator squeezes through a security check point and gets into a crowded freight elevator bound for the backstage quarters two floors up. In the elevator, the coordinator, Jen, divides her time between shouting into a wireless cell phone boom and negotiating how long senior clown Jesse Highley, a Central Missouri theatre alumnus, will be available before the three o'clock matinee. 

"Is he ready? Because we're coming up," Jen announces. At first it's not clear to whom the question is being asked.


Behind the Scenes


At the backstage facility, the doors of the elevator slide open and reveal a shadowy corridor typically reserved for performers and the stage crews who make the shows happen. Hidden away from the eyes of the crowd, this is perhaps the world's most famous venue. Jen scuttles through a labyrinth of linoleum floors and gray stone walls, which at the moment houses elements suggesting a circus is about to take place. Lean young girls in red-sequined leotards roam, chatting in Russian among elaborate parade floats decorated with faux gold lining. Oddly, a lone elephant lazily pushes a pile of straw around with its trunk next to a large, circular banner that reads, "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Jesse Highley

A touch of Highley's own style comes to life in his clown alter ego.

Jen spots Highley hanging out in front of neon-orange "people-pods," a type of parade float akin to the teacups at Disney World. They are reserved for spectators who pay $150 for a ride through the performance as it actually happens. Highley has just surfaced from Clown Alley, the sacred sanctuary of clown tradition where people enter as normal men and women and leave as clowns or vice versa. He's in full dress and under the circumstances, a site to behold.


A Style All His Own


Highley's sheer-white painted face is topped with a carefully tussled purple wig. He sports an improbable matching blazer, green cargo pants, an oversized cardigan sweater and dress shoes, which are, you guessed it, very large. The area around his left eye is painted blue and his collar is affixed with a snazzy, albeit exaggerated, striped tie. In another dimension Highley could pass for dapper or at least, preppy. Here, he seems strangely sedate and even scholarly despite a seemingly inherent penchant for animation, which is undeniably, silly.

"My nickname in the Alley is Abercrombie because that's all I wear," Highley said. "I'm a very snazzy dresser. I have hair that's always gelled. I'm very well put together. That, in turn, comes out through my clown."

In the distance behind Highley, a herd of Asian elephants sways under the fount of a leaf blower as straw is cleared from their backs in preparation for the matinee.


Bright Lights in the Big Apple


Demonstrating a genuine excitement, Highley seems especially anxious. For those involved with The Greatest Show on Earth, Madison Square Garden means more than just playing the largest venue in New York City. Months of planning and organization go into their New York run because the show's future depends on its success, Highley explained.

"We have different critics from all over the world come and critique the show; [that] doesn't happen anywhere else on the tour but here," he said. "The New York Times, Inside Edition, a lot of news media come out. We were on the Today Show and Good Morning America. The majority of our publicity comes from New York."

The circus enters New York City with no lack of fanfare. Each year the entire show — animals and all — marches on foot through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel at midnight into the heart of the city and through the gates of Madison Square Garden. Once they emerge onto the streets of the Big Apple, all the varied sequences that make the circus a high-wire act balancing chaos and performance are locked in for the next year and a half.


Life on the Road


"A lot of times I don't know where we've come from or where we're going. We perform every day except for about a week around Christmas. It's a grueling schedule but, you know, I get paid to play. I could be stuck in a cubicle in a little office somewhere and stare at a computer all day, but I'm not. I get to come out here and play and see the country," Highley said.

Jesse Highley

"My favorite thing about being a clown is what I can get away with ... those kinds of things that shock people or take them off guard and cause them to laugh; I love that." - UCM alumnus Jesse Highley

The tour schedule the circus undertakes for the remainder of the season is unimaginable. After finishing in New York, Highley travels more than 20,000 miles, crisscrossing the nation on a 52-car train that hauls the entire show, in all about 250 people and 107 animals and birds. Highley sleeps in a 5 x 8 room, which he said pales in comparison to his dorm room as a student at UCM. On the weekends, he performs what are called "six packs," three shows on Saturday, three shows on Sunday.

"My favorite thing about being a clown is what I can get away with," he said. "I can get away with murder and these people let me. They just accept it as is. It's okay that this guy is telling my three-year-old kid to shut up or stop picking their nose. It's okay that he just turned to my 80-year-old grandmother and hit on her. Those kinds of things that shock people or take them off guard and cause them to laugh; I love that."


Fulfilling a Childhood Dream


Highley came to The Greatest Show after working for the happiest place on earth, Disney World. He played Prince Charming at Cinderella's Palace, escorting the fabled princess each day to meet her public, the patrons of the world's most popular theme park. Highley even played the famous prince at Disney Tokyo in Japan for awhile before deciding to move to the big top, a career change he called a childhood dream.

"Pretty much as a kid, I started to teach myself to juggle and the unicycle and stilt-walk and to tumble and all the things you need to know to be a clown on this show," he said. "I heard that at the time they had something called the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College. Unfortunately it closed in 1997 and that was the year I graduated from high school. So I decided to go to Central Missouri on a theatre scholarship instead of going to clown college."

Disney lured Highley away from UCM before he completed his degree. Offered a job he couldn't refuse, he left to play Prince Charming. The reality of daily performances become taxing. "I'd be there with Cinderella on my arm getting ready to come through the castle curtains and drawbridge and we'd be back there going, 'is this day ever going to end?'"

Through some creative networking, Highley landed an audition with Ringling Brothers. Before he knew it, he was fulfilling his lifelong dream of being a circus clown.


Jesse Highley

Jesse Highley in full clown costume

Send in the Clowns

Trading in his stuffy prince's costume for floppy shoes and purple wig, he set out on the next train bound for Chicago. More than the clown makeup and costume, Highley was excited about letting his true personality shine in a new way.

"A lot of people think that when you are a clown, if you take on that position, you come in the morning with your seltzer bottle and your banana cream pie... If you were to meet me out of costume and out of character, I'm nothing like that at all."


Career Options on the Horizon


Today, Highley has more on his mind than just the circus. Although he is living his childhood dream, he wants more than anything to return to the stage. He comments on a project his friend, Bruce Vilanch, is developing. The wooly and bespectacled comedy writer — best known for his guest appearances on Hollywood Squares but nevertheless the brains behind performers such as Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Bette Midler and 14 Academy Award shows — is writing an edgier, more adult show for Highley and one of his clown colleagues. If nothing else, Highley looks to the future as a performer on Broadway, maintaining his love affair with the open road and the challenge of assuming a theatrical character.

"I work with some clowns who have been doing this 10, 15 plus years. This is all they've ever wanted to do, and this is all they will do. And I think for that, great, good for you. But with me, there's only so long I can paint all this stuff on."

Jesse Highley performs as a clown with the Ringling Circus

Jesse Highley wins the clown car race.

Highley waits behind the curtain before entering the circus's preshow, where audience members explore the arena floor and interact with performers. From behind the massive stretch of royal blue material, the music resonates in the arena's bowels as Highley psychs himself into performance mode. He points a few sarcastic remarks at the circus elephant master, Troy, who is brushing the show's youngest pachyderm, Sasha.

"Sasha, do you like clowns?" Troy says. Sasha replies with a laborious, side-to-side shake of her head. With this, the curtain parts a few feet to allow another clown leading a zedonk, a half-zebra half-donkey, to exit the floor. Highley sweeps through the gap, strutting into the crowd amidst a gush of screaming joy, the kind of excitement a clown exacts.


In the Spotlight


The preshow is a circus in itself. With crowds of New Yorkers milling around a single ring (paired down for the first time from the show's traditional three rings), the music and sights of the big top overload the senses. As Highley provokes the crowd with quips and backhanded compliments, another clown appears on a giant circular flat screen above the floor, reminding everyone how much fun they're having.  

Most circus goers don't expect Highley's level of sarcasm. When he is approached by a father and two sons, one of whom holds up a toy cell phone and exclaims, "Look! I have a phone!" Highley looks at the toy, at the father and replies to the child in a faux Jersey accent, "Yeah, that's great kid." At first they don't know what to think. However, after a beat and a wink from Highley, the family howls with laughter.

When the crowd takes their seats in the stands and the lights dim, Highley disappears into the darkness of the backstage area. When the show starts, a parade of spectacle erupts from the guts of Madison Square Garden with Highley in tow.

During the performance, Highley is explosive. Strutting and gallivanting under a gossamer dome of light and music, he maneuvers with dizzying grace and delicate bravado as the circus dances around him. He partakes in a pie fight, a skit that results in a fellow clown's head being consumed by a prop turkey (this was an improvisation, Highley said, as the prop pie intended for the gag was stolen, an inevitability in New York City), and a mock NASCAR go-kart race. Highley wins.

Jesse Highley puts on clown makeup

Clown makeup takes Jesse Highley an hour to apply.

The show ends, and Highley is satisfied with another performance. He looks over the empty arena floor as the First of Mays, the freshmen of Clown Alley, sweep up remains and the last spectators lumber up the steps to leave the arena.


Another Curtain Awaits


Still in makeup, Highley dons the brown jumpsuit he is required to wear between performances. It's Monday and he begins to dress for the 7 o'clock; most New Yorkers will be emptying the trains after their nightly commute from the offices occupying the sky above Manhattan. For the next hour, Highley will apply grease paint, arrange the hairs on his wig and put on his floppy shoes. He will do it again every day, sometimes three times a day, for another year.

"Its a part of relaxation for me, putting on the makeup, looking into the mirror, getting into character, making sure it all comes together, because when you put the red nose and the hair on, you know you have something worth going out there and saying, look at me."

— Michael Bradshaw '06