As Prince Paul often said: “Whether you’re rich or whether you’re poor, it’s nice to have money.” My embryonic conceptions about money were formed at Ringling when I began as a First of May. Prior to my initiation into that archaic body of buffoons I hardly took notice of mazuma. At home, everything was paid for by my parents -- my food, my clothes, and my shelter. The only things I had to worry about paying for were Mad Magazine and Old Dutch Onion and Garlic Chips. I loved snacking on them while looking at the latest zaniness of Don Martin and Antonio Prohias.
In clown alley I quickly learned not the value of money so much as its fleetingness in the life of a circus clown. My salary was slight, to say the least, and it had to cover a multitude of requirements. There was makeup and costumes and rent for my roomette on the ‘Iron Lung’ and food and tithing and savings and books and taxi cabs and girls -- not necessarily in that order. Some weeks the girls took most of my meager income -- other weeks I splurged on books. And some weeks, being just 18 and not yet grown to my full height, my adolescent hunger pangs demanded steaks and chops and french fries enough to beggar me. I discovered that one of the cheapest yet most filling meals I could afford on my income was liver and onions, with a side of mashed potatoes and plenty of bread and butter. On the East coast the White House restaurant chain offered a large platter of it for $1.25. In the Midwest the Woolworth stores practically gave the meal away at their grill for just 75 cents. And out in California they served thin, crispy slices of liver wrapped in bacon at the Big Boy chain for a round one buck.
Of course, there was always the circus-run pie car, where you could get a meal pretty much at-cost. But there were times when I tired of seeing the same old faces at every meal -- and the place reeked of cigarette smoke.
I was conflicted when it came to tipping. One the one hand, my co-worker Chico never tipped. He maintained that since we would not be back to that same restaurant for possibly years to come, it didn’t matter if we stiffed the wait staff. On the other hand my future clown partner Steve Smith insisted that we should be open-handed with every waitress, because his mother had been a waitress and depended on generous tips to feed and clothe her kids. I tried to eat out with Chico, rather than Smith, as often as I could. (And just for the record, now that I’m settled here in Provo, Utah -- whenever I eat out I am the soul of generosity when it comes to tipping -- mostly because I only eat out with my kids and they won’t let me get away with shortchanging the wait staff.)
This is a long and wordy preamble to a description of the mechanics of payday at the Ringling Brothers Blue Unit back in the early 70’s. Our pay was disbursed every Friday, but the exact time when the manna fell was flexible. As soon as the banks were open Schwartzy, a former midget clown with the show, who now functioned as paymaster as well as the circus train’s concierge, was driven over by Mac the bus driver and mail clerk, to pick up several sacks of greenbacks and rolls of coin. Schwartzy brought the loot back to his office in the back of the Pie Car to count out and stuff into envelopes. Then he hauled out an immense check register and began the laborious task of signing each employee’s check. There were over four hundred checks for him to sign -- and he already had a sore elbow from the frequent tipping of a bottle -- so he didn’t finish this task until late afternoon. Usually after the matinee had already started.
The veteran clowns could remember a time, back in 40’s and 50’s, when payday was an uncertain prospect. If the show did not make their nut for several days in a row, payday could be postponed until the following week. Or month. This memory made them skittish on payday -- they wanted to get theirs before the money ran out. As soon as the First Call was sounded on the trumpet by bandleader Bill Pryne, Swede Johnson, Prince Paul, and Mark Anthony became Olympic runners -- leaping tall elephant tubs in a single bound and skirting around guy wires with the grace of a cheetah closing in on its prey. They usually got to the card table set up by Schwartzy before any other performer.
The ritual never varied. Since the clowns were always in makeup when they received their salary, which circus management thought increased the likelihood of fraudulent impersonation, we each had to announce our full given name to Schwartzy -- even though he’d known some of the clowns for more than thirty years. Once satisfied we were not grifting impersonators, he pushed the paycheck towards us, we signed it, he took it back, and then handed us an envelope of cash. Deductions were already made for our roomette on the train, Social Security. and AGVA dues. We had to take care of our own taxes. That first year on the road I foolishly kept my legal residence in Minnesota, which has one of the highest personal income tax rates in the country, instead of changing it to Florida, which has no personal income tax. At the end of the year I was hit with a tax bill that wiped out most of my carefully hoarded savings.
I always liked that it was first come first serve on payday. Whether you were a trapeze star or a lowly clown, you stood in line and waited your turn. The only exception to this rule was Otto Griebling. By special dispensation from Irvin Feld himself, Otto’s salary was automatically sent to his wife Annie back in Florida each week. When Schwartzy had finished paying off he would personally bring an envelope of cash to Otto in clown alley, which Otto did not even have to sign for. Swede told me it was called a ‘clown emeritus bonus’ and was completely off the books so Otto didn’t have to report it to Uncle Sam.
The older clowns all kept a ‘grouch’ bag around their necks -- a leather pouch where they squirreled away their cash snug as a bug in a rug. I tried the same thing, buying a plastic one from an AAA store that was for the safekeeping of passports and traveler’s checks. But the plastic string around my neck chafed exceedingly. So I stuck my slim wad of bills into my wallet and left it in my clown trunk during the show. During the weekend I wallowed in my filthy lucre -- all $125.00 of it -- but on Monday I always found a bank to buy money orders to mail to my own bank and to pay my tithes and fast offerings. What little was left then went for food and books and baby oil and Stein’s clown white.
And if I could have found a store that sold Old Dutch Onion and Garlic chips I would have been in very heaven.