For a Journalist in the Moscow Circus, Gathering the Bear Facts Is a Clowning Achievement
updated 01/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
Her report follows:
It all started when I sold my 1983 Toyota Celica to tightrope walker Akhmed Abakarov. I hadn't even told him I was selling the car, but Akhmed had learned of it while I was interviewing the troupe's performers in Detroit and thought he might want it for his daughter back home. So there we were, a dozen Soviets and I, in the parking lot, looking the old car over. All of a sudden Igor Podchufarov, one of the clowns (still in costume from the afternoon show), climbed into the car and floored it for a 30-mph spin—in reverse—around the parking lot.
"Don't smash it!" I screamed, justly terrified.
"Oh, he's only clowning around," said his friends, smiling, as Igor barreled backward into another hairpin turn.
Akhmed haggled a little, agreed on a price, then prepared to ship his new possession home once the tour ended. I had seen three performances of the circus by then, and they had been wonderful, magical experiences. I wanted to see more. Lots more. One night I began thinking, what could be better than joining up and watching it from the inside, maybe for just a week or so? I called the circus organizers, made my pitch, and amazingly they said okay.
I flew to San Diego for the tail end of a five-month, 17-city tour that had begun in August. Although I am a second-generation Armenian and had once studied Russian in college (just long enough to pronounce zdravstvuitye, or "hello," correctly), my new friends and I had to communicate mostly through broken English, fractured Russian and sometimes Armenian.
Alexander Frish, another of the clowns, agrees to let me join his act. "No prrroblem," he says. "Don't worry, be khappy." My duties seem simple enough: Frish will let me help him put on a coat while he juggles. We rehearse backstage. "Okay, strrretch arms," he instructs. "Rrrelax." He places his black tuxedo jacket in my hands. Then he stands in front of me, juggling three blocks, and slips his left arm into the coat I'm holding. While he's juggling and I'm hanging on to the jacket, I lunge forward, pretending to try and catch the blocks in case they fall. On his third juggle I'm supposed to lunge too far and fall down. "If I mess up, make a joke of it," I caution Frish. "No prrroblem," he assures me. "Don't worry, be khappy."
There's more to this business than I realized. Before show time the bears are removed from their cages and chained to a roped-off area. One day one of them breaks loose and begins running on his hind feet backstage. Everybody flees for safety except brave Steve Mshar, head of security on the tour and a former New York City cop. Mshar shouts, "Go on, get outta here," to the bear, chases it into the room where the cages are kept, then slams the door. "It happened too fast for me to think about," he said later.
When show time comes, Frish plants me out in the audience. My knees are rattling like an ice-cube crusher. I'm trying to rehearse in my mind, but the kid sitting next to me is so antsy she's distracting me. I offer her a piece of gum. Frish beckons me into the ring, and I shake my head as instructed, as if to say, "No way." He drags me out.
The megawatt lights at the San Diego Sports Arena are beaming down like the equatorial sun. Frish juggles his blocks, reaches his left arm back and misses the sleeve. I've flubbed it. "Strrretch," he shouts. He tries again and scores. I follow him around the ring and do the fall, but it feels like I'm on the ground for an eternity. I'm ruining his act, I know it. I jump up, grab the right sleeve of his coat and hold it until he slips his arm inside. I take a bow, and then another. People are clapping. What a feeling!
Back in my ringside seat I receive instant recognition. The little girl suddenly realizes she's sitting next to a star. "Wow, that was great!" she says. "I'll share my gum with you."
There are five more performances over the next two days before the troupe heads to Los Angeles. By then, what with the daily sightseeing trips we take, I'm exhausted. I also haven't seen a shopping mall in over a week.
In Los Angeles, Frish decides to put me in another part of his act. It seems they think I'm slowing up the tempo. They also don't think it's ladylike for me to fall down. This time I'm supposed to approach the ring with a group of children from the audience. Frish tries to juggle 16 blocks horizontally and pretends to drop them. Then he spots me among the tykes and says, "Oh, big children, big children." As I'm standing there, he grabs the bottom of my pink sweatshirt and pretends to lift it up. I quickly pull it down. Laughter from the audience. Then he says, "Do what I do," and tries to show me how to juggle the blocks. I take the easy way and stack them vertically. Then I take a bow. Friends in the audience get a kick out of it, but Frish thinks I need more practice. The next night he lets me try the coat routine again, this time with no falling. A piece of cake.
On our fifth day in L.A., I invite a few of the performers to my room. Alex, the ringmaster, plays guitar and sings a Gypsy song. Bersnak, one of the Caucasian horseback riders, plays a Russian sailor tune. Vladimir, the strongman acrobat, does handstands. Bolstered by vodka toasts (I'm drinking Coke), we begin to sing so loudly that the front desk calls to tell us that people are complaining. Alla, an interpreter, explains that whenever her parents invite their musician friends over to their Moscow apartment, neighbors call the police. I guess disturbing the peace is universal.
Three days later the show heads for Seattle. I'm going home, back to a life without tigers, tightrope walkers or the smell of sawdust. I say my last goodbyes, but my Kleenex is drenched, my eyes puffy. "Don't worry, be khappy," Vladimir says with a smile.
En route to the airport, I rehearse a new clown act in my mind. It's not over, I tell myself. It has only just begun.