Farewell to the Circus: Remembering a Ringmaster

For three decades, Harold Ronk sang "Welcome to the Circus" in his operatic baritone for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show. He died this week at age 85. Former clown Murray Horwitz recalls his colleague and friend.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HAROLD RONK (Ringmaster): (Singing) Come to the circus and pack your cares away. Come to the circus...

ELLIOTT: No matter what you're background, no matter what part of the country you're from, if you're between the ages of thirty and sixty, there's a good chance that you came under the spell of Harold Ronk. Mr. Ronk was the singing ringmaster of The Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus from 1951 to 1981. He died this week at the age of 85. Murray Horwitz was a clown in the Ringling Brothers Circus with Harold Ronk and he has this appreciation of his friend and mentor.

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (Clown): The American touring show business of the 20th century brought first rate live theater, music, vaudeville, opera, burlesque and circus to just about every big city and small town on the continent. It depended on new speedy forms of transportation and mass communications. But if you were one of the show people, it also depended on a certain kind of professionalism. That was what we called it. Just about the worst thing you could call a colleague on the circus was unprofessional.

Professionalism had to do with discipline and deportment. It meant showing up on time, being prepared, taking care of your props and costumes, and being reliable. If the train pulled out and you weren't on it, it didn't matter how much talent you had.

Harold Ronk was the model of professionalism. He was, after all, the most prominent performer in the show and he set an example for all of us rookies. He took that mentoring role seriously and was a generous and gracious collaborator. For those of us who had grown up in the 1950s with some ordinary but pernicious prejudices, Harold and his partner, Bob Harrison, one of my bosses on the Ringling show, also quietly but openly demonstrated the astonishing truth that two men could live together in a stable, happy, productive domestic relationship.

Harold, in turn, had had his own mentor, the great American baritone, Robert Weedy(ph). Weedy was a Metropolitan Opera singer, but he had also been a regular at the Radio City Music Hall and a star on Broadway. That meant Harold had been classically trained and he applied that high level craft and training and technique to popular art. So when Harold presided over the greatest show on earth, he did it with the same dedication, character and skill that he used when singing in an opera, touring in a Broadway musical, or soloing in church every Sunday. It was his greatest lesson to us. And it's a lesson we need to pass on.

Harold closed every circus performance with a song that went: May all your days be circus days, a many-spangled world of delight. It was after all, the way he lived his life.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. RONK: (Singing) Popcorn and lemonade underneath a Big Top...

ELLIOTT: Murray Horwitz is the director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater here in the Washington area. He was a clown in the Ringling Brothers Circus. Harold Ronk died this week from complications of a colon infection, according to a friend.

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