Arts in the Family: A Family of Artists Just Trying to Make a Living in the Wilds of Texas


Monday, September 24, 2012

Guest Blogger: Rik Gern Remembering Circus Bill Poster Ralph Gifford

Today's post is a very special one courtesy of my friend and fellow clown Rik Gern. A few weeks ago we spoke to each other over the phone about a lot of different things as we usually do. At a certain point in the conversation Rik started relating to me the story of a very interesting fellow named Ralph Gifford (pictured above) who worked as a bill poster for many circuses including Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. 

It was such a great story about someone who was just as important a part of circus lore and history as anyone else associated with that wonderful world that I thought it a shame more people weren't familiar with his name, his life and the work to which he was so dedicated. 

Rik was good enough to put it all down on paper in order to post it here. Thank you Rik for sharing such a wonderful tale of a person who's place in circus history deserves to be remembered. Well, without further ado, here is Mr. Gern spinning the yarn as only he can. Enjoy.

"I met Ralph Gifford in 2005, when I was working as the Advance Clown for the Gold Unit of The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Ralph was a bill poster; the guy in charge of making sure any town the circus was going to appear in was inundated with posters, and that as many shops as possible had their checkout counters equipped with cardboard display cases full of discount coupons for the big show. 
        My first impression of Ralph was that of a crusty old road-dog who’s speech was a cross between a growl and a mumble, and who didn’t have much to say to anybody. Within minutes he confirmed the first part of my impression, and blew the second half out of the water. Ralph was quite the raconteur; he loved his job, he loved the circus and all its attendant lore, and he loved talking about it!
        I didn’t know how old he was, but “older than dirt” didn’t seem too far off. It turns out he’d been a bill poster for practically every small circus in America, and could have been living in retirement had he chosen to, but he wanted to end his career by getting the final feather in his cap and working for the Big One, “The Greatest Show On Earth”. Even though his job entailed spending most of the year living in hotels, driving from town to town, and managing an ever changing crew of people who ranged from eccentric and highly intelligent to eccentric and “out there”, he gave the impression of loving every minute of it, and treating every town as a new adventure. Even when he’d grouse about a person or territory, he’d do it with a gleam in his eye that let you know he enjoyed his work so much that he even liked being pissed off about it!
       I left the road in 2006, but continued to see Ralph every time he came thru town. He’d tell stories of his mud show days, and catch me up on the latest Ringling gossip (his version of it, anyway!), and by the time he’d moved on to the next town I’d feel like I’d been steeped in Americana and had been breathing the sawdust-scented air of generations past.
       The last time I saw Ralph he did something that exemplified his irascible aged/youthful spirit, and that I’ll never forget. After dinner, we headed to a local WalMart so that he could get some supplies. It was the end of a long day, and he was weary, so he took advantage of one of the motorized scooter carts that the store provides for handicapped customers. As we made our way around the store we noticed—you couldn’t NOT notice—a pack of aggressive teenagers who were roaming thru the isles and intimidating the docile shoppers. After witnessing their belligerence towards an older woman, Ralph started scowling and muttering obscenities before turning to me with a twinkle in his eye and saying, “Watch this”. Slowly and subtly, he started slouching in the scooter and twisting his body until it looked like he was doing an impression of the crippled physicist Steven Hawking. Once his metamorphosis was complete, he started zig-zagging his cart towards the young punks in a herky-jerky fashion guaranteed to elicit nothing but pity from anyone who hadn’t seen him just a minute before he’d transformed his appearance. He then proceeded to “accidentally” bump and crash his cart into each of the offending youths and effectively chase them down the isle until one of them crashed into a stacked display of paper towels. The store’s security personnel arrived on the scene just as the kids were beginning to figure out Ralph’s game and starting to speak aggressively and threateningly towards him, so they were promptly hustled out of the store as Ralph received expressions of sympathy from onlookers who’s attention he’d grabbed. He kept up the “poor old man” act while we checked out and all the way to my car. Once we got in the car he looked at me, burst into a big sly grin, and started cackling and laughing like a naughty teenager. The senior delinquent had outfoxed the juvenile delinquents! “Ralph”, I told him, “you make me want to grow old!”
       Seeing Ralph had become a highlight of my circus season, and as usual, I sent him an email a few weeks before the show was due to arrive this Summer. My email was returned as undeliverable, so I tried calling him, but all the numbers I had were disconnected. That’s when I did some Google searching and learned that he passed away earlier this year. I’m glad to know that Ralph lived a long life and did what he loved until the end. It was an honor to have known him, and the circus just won’t seem the same without him! Thanks for the memories, Ralph!"

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