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After 15 years of Ringling Bros circus, clown plans next act

Every morning, in those moments when he’s just beginning to awaken, Sandor Eke reflexively grabs his nose.

The odd little habit is a remnant of the 15 years Eke spent as a clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Clowns put on their signature red noses after the rest of their costumes, so that it doesn’t fall off, Eke explains, because stepping onto the circus floor noseless is a cardinal sin.

But there’s no longer any need for Eke’s daily nose check, because his gig with Ringling Bros. ended when the circus its tent after 146 years.

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Sandor Eke. Benjamin Hager Las Vegas Review-Journal

Now, Eke is making a tricky transition from clowning to whatever life holds next.

Eventually, he might even get out of the habit of doing that daily nose-grabbing thing.

A circus life

Eke, 41, was born into the circus in Budapest, Hungary. His father was a tent master — “basically a general manager,” Eke says — and his mother was a circus announcer, roughly equivalent to a ringmaster here.

He traveled with them until he was 6 and had to go to school, entering a Communist sports school to train as a swimmer and later, in the modern pentathlon.

Sports school was intensely serious. Around seventh grade, he stopped swimming. “Honestly, I became too lazy,” he says.

Having to choose a course of study, Eke decided that he wanted to be a baker or join the navy. The first was odd, in retrospect, “because I can’t make a damn cookie,” he says, laughing. “I cook great. I love cooking. But I can’t make a cookie and I wanted to be a baker and I don’t know why.”

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Ringling Bros. clowns Sandor Eke, left, and Ivan Skinfill perform during the intermission of a show, Saturday, May 6, 2017, in Providence, R.I. AP Photo Julie Jacobson

Then, there was his third choice: The circus. Eke entered circus school at age 13 and found that his athletic training translated well to doing acrobatics. He learned such skills as juggling and began to tour with a troupe of performers, eventually starting his own trampoline troupe and teeter board act.

In 1996, Ringling Bros. signed him to perform a teeter board act. Five years later, he reluctantly accepted circus managers’ desire to make him a clown.

Send in the clown

Eke would spend 15 years as a clown, specializing in slapstick, falls and acrobatic routines. He learned such traditional clowning skills as juggling, and also about clown culture — and about the little-known role of circus clowns as fill-in artists, keeping a show moving smoothly when an act is unable to perform or when a show runs short.

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Boss clown Sandor Eke juggles with fire during a show, Thursday, May 4, 2017, in Providence, R.I. AP Photo Julie Jacobson

“One time the power just shut off,” he says. “The emergency lights came on, but they can’t perform on emergency lights, so they send in the clowns, and the clowns have to go on until it’s fixed.”

Clowns even have a specific piece of music that is to them what the Bat Signal is to Batman: A sign that their help is urgently needed.

“The clowns’ dressing room always has speakers, so when we hear that music, you go. You run. You run like hell,” Eke says. “When you hear that, you pick up your closest props and you run. Then, you just entertain the crowd for how long it takes.”

Eke spent his final years with the circus as boss clown, the head clown who manages the clowns and the bits they do. He also became more involved in creating those bits and gags.

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Sandor Eke, second from left, worked for Ringling Bros. Circus as the boss clown for over 20 years. Benjamin Hager Las Vegas Review-Journal

“I didn’t just want to be a performer,” he says. “I wanted to be the one who created, who puts ideas in.”

The curtain falls

In January, Eke learned that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was shutting down. Eke recalls that staff and performers were called to a meeting after the second of the night’s three shows.

“That sounded not good,” he says. “But we got to thinking maybe they were getting rid of the (circus) train. Maybe there were rumors they were going to sell the show to Disney. Maybe there are no more animals ever again. Or maybe we were just going to close? Ahh, we’re not going to close the show …”

The news hit like the boom of a guy shooting out of a cannon: On May 7, Eke’s unit would perform its final show.

For Eke, the news was disappointing in ways that went beyond the loss of a job. It also meant the need to find a new profession, and the loss of associates turned close friends. Thanks to the circus, he says, “I have friends in at least 50 different countries, and I can tell you they are friends. I can go to 50 countries in the world and I have a bed and food and everything, and my friends can say the same thing.”

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Boss clown Sandor Eke hugs fellow clowns as he holds his 2-year-old son, Michael after the red unit’s final performance, Sunday, May 7, 2017. AP Photo Julie Jacobson

Next act

After his last show, Eke returned to Las Vegas, where he and his family had moved the previous year.

“I wanted to be a bartender for a long time,” he says. “If I wanted to be a bartender, and my wife is an aerialist, where would you move? People do two things here: Watching entertainment and drinking, right?”

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Sandor Eke worked for Ringling Bros. Circus as the boss clown for over 20 years. Benjamin Hager Las Vegas Review-Journal

He finished bartender school here, but hasn’t yet been able to find a job.” I did not have the experience,” he says. So, right now, he spends his days day caring for son Michael, 3, while his wife, Olga, who attended dealer’s school here and also continues performing as an aerialist, is at work.

He still can clown — he still has face paint and juggling pins and other tools of his trade — and continues to pursue a bartending job while remaining open to clowning gigs. He’s also pursuing a behind-the-scenes position in show production.

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Ringling Bros. boss clown Sandor Eke hugs his 2-year-old son Michael after the red unit’s final show. AP Photo Julie Jacobson

“For me, bartending is entertaining,” he says. “In the circus, we’d have parties and I was bartending. I love to talk to people. The bartender is kind of like the universal person.”

In the almost three months since his clowning career was suspended, Eke has continued to grapple with the broken rhythm of missing three or more shows a day, every day.

“I spent 20 years with Ringling Bros., and I’ve been performing since I was 13,” he says, laughing. “I was a clown for 15 years. So, today, I wake up and grab my nose.”

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Ringling Bros. boss clown Sandor Eke, center, holds his 2-year-old son Michael up to pet a camel before performing in a show. AP Photo Julie Jacobson

Contact John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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