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Friday, September 01, 2006 

Au Sable Forks, NY. 115 miles. Grass. Cool.

North along the St Lawrence River and the border with Canada. Vermont in the distance across Lake Champlain. Despite the date on the calendar it’s fall here. The leaves are changing and farms offer fresh cider. At Plattsburgh we turned south on the interstate. A man on a street corner sells Maine lobster from the back of his pickup. We are closer to Portland than to New York City. Here in the Adirondack Mountains the whole town turns out for circus day, but for the fly fishermen intent on native brooks and browns. For the early show families drive in from Lake Placid and Saranac.

I have been meaning to write about Harold Ronk. Mr. Ronk passed away last month at his home in the Midwest. Harold Ronk was the quintessential ringmaster, the embodiment of Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus as it appeared in New York for more than thirty years. The role of the ringmaster confuses audiences sometimes. Artist or administrator? That depends. Harold Ronk with his baritone Broadway voice was certainly an artist of the highest caliber.

In the years after the American Civil War a talented circus owner and clown named Dan Costello stepped into the center ring both as the equestrian director (performance director) and the announcer of for his show. (Eventually he would take on the same roles on the Barnum circus.) Later Al Ringling served said functions for the Ringling Brothers. The notion that sometimes the ringmaster owns the show, or that the ringmaster directs the performance isn’t entirely misguided.

Why the confusion then?

Because when all is said and done as often as not, the ringmaster is the show’s announcer, pitchman, and peanut vendor; and the equestrian director or performance director is waiting by the back door. Sometimes the ringmaster is a performer too. Maybe the ringmaster sings, as did Mr. Ronk, sometimes the ringmaster performs magic and illusions. Good ringmasters can wear several hats.

In Europe and on some shows here in the States a circus may do without a ringmaster entirely. The program speaks for the show, the equestrian director serves as a fall guy for the clowns, and the concession manager sells the nuts. Increasingly a ringmaster might be a ring mistress. There are some very talented ringmistresses. Strictly in terms of marketing and demographics it’s hard to beat an attractive bilingual woman who can announce a show in both English and Spanish. On our show Aaron Broderick has a great voice and enormous self assurance.


But there will never be another Harold Ronk. Nobody can define the role of ringmaster as thoroughly as Mr. Ronk did, and few will ever sing as well. The circus as an art form was poorer the day Mr. Ronk retired. With his passing we are left with the memories.