It seems so strange today how great a hold the circus held on the psyche of young Americans in the last century. For Herb Ryman, it was no different; he, too, was drawn to the romance of sawdust and greasepaint and the open road. A chance meeting in 1948 with Bill Antes, advance man for the Ringling Brothers Circus, led to a friendship and the eventual invitation to travel with the circus. Ryman, eager to document the circus in his paintings, gladly accepted the invitation and, after taking his leave from 20th Century Fox, joined the circus in Chicago in the spring of 1949. For two summers, in 1949 and again in 1951, he would travel with the circus and live amongst its performers.
In his travels, Herb would pay witness to the constantly changing sights of the circus. Every day was different, and the constant hustle and bustle provided an endless stream of stimuli for the artist. In fact, it was almost frustrating for Ryman; no endless amount of sketching and painting could capture everything he was experiencing on a daily basis. He was also faced with the challenge of distilling the essence of the circus into a purely visual medium, when its atmosphere was so dependent on the rich blend of sounds and smells and music. This held true for the sights onstage as well as backstage; the constant machinations of everyday life for the circus crew was something that Herb took great pains to document.
As hard as it is to remember an era when the circus held such a grip on the American consciousness, it’s even more of a disconnect to recall that clowns were once popular and enjoyed without apparent irony. Herb spent a lot of time with the clowns of the circus, living on “clown alley” most of the time he was on the road. This was an era when some clowns were actually famous in society at large, and Ryman became friends with the most famous of all time – Emmett Kelly. Kelly, an artist himself, appreciated Ryman’s efforts to capture the spirit of the circus on canvas. As he would later say, “Herb Ryman put the smell of sawdust into paint.”
In one of those amusing coincidences that so often appear in Ryman’s life, Emmett Kelly was a huge fan of Walt Disney. The two entertainers’ lives had mirrored each other in fascinating ways; the story of a young artist coming to Kansas City to become a cartoonist, and finding work making theatrical advertisements is familiar, but it’s little known that the story could also be about Emmett Kelly. In fact, Kelly was in Kansas City working in an animation studio across town at the exact same time that Walt was getting started at the Kansas City Film Ad company. It was here that Kelly would first start sketching the “Weary Willy” character that would eventually become his most famous routine.
Kelly and Walt’s paths diverged when Walt left for Los Angeles to become a film producer and Kelly eventually joined the circus; he worked in a number of roles before developing his clowning act. Although they had never met in Kansas City they were mutual fans; Kelly always wanted to be an animator, and Walt always wished he had run away with the circus. Their paths wouldn’t converge, though, until they both met Herb Ryman and he introduced them in 1950. It was a unique occasion, one of those very rare times when Walt himself was starstruck. As Eddie Sotto said in a recent comment here:
Walt loved the Circus and wished he had run away to join it. Herb Ryman said that was Walt admired Emmet Kelly more than anyone else and was proudest touring him around the studio. Kelly had wanted to become an animator so they mutually admired each other. Herbie had lots of Circus stories and Walt was even jealous that Herb had traveled with Ringling one year himself.
As Eddie added in a later posting, Herb complained that Walt would, on occasion, introduce him to people as “Herb Ryman, who traveled with the Circus.”
Ironically, these two huge circus fans – Ryman and Disney – would play a huge role in the demise of the circus as an entertainment institution. Times were already changing; Herb’s second stint with the circus in 1951 would mark the last time the Ringling Brothers circus would perform under the famous giant tents of the Big Top. A couple of years later, in 1953, Ryman would receive a phone call that would lead to a fundamental change of the American recreation landscape that made the spectacle of the circus pale in comparison.