Thursday, April 2, 2015

Kathleen Cremonesi's life: Love in the Elephant Tent

HALLIE EPHRON: An Italian circus offers a footloose American her very own pair of ruby stilettos. She dons a rhinestone bikini, becomes an ostrich-riding, shark-taming showgirl, falls for the handsome elephant keeper, Stefano, and lives to tell the tale!

No, it’s not fiction. This is a MEMOIR! And the beauteous adventurer who lived it, Kathleen Cremonesi, is with us today on Jungle Red.

How on earth did you end up running off to join the circus?
KATHLEEN CREMONESI: By accident, really -- one of those split second decisions that changes your life.

I arrived solo in Amsterdam on a cold and rainy October day, so I decided to head south and hooked up with a juggler and mandolin player who were also hitchhiking toward Spain. After failing miserably at street performing, we joined a band of English gypsies picking oranges in Catalonia, earning $5 a day.

When the juggler saw a sign for a circus, he'd decided he was going to get a job performing there and asked me to come along to translate for him. I had no intention of joining, at least not until I noticed this gorgeous young man in the ring with the elephants.

Next thing I knew, I was swirled up into the adventure of it all and had signed on as a dancing girl -- which is a crack up in itself since the only dancing I’d done since toddler ballet was at Grateful Dead shows.

HALLIE: Your description of your first encounter with Mary, the elephant, and Stefano, the handsome elephant keeper, is hot hot hot. Tell us, is Stefano as charming as he looks?

KATHLEEN: Stefano - he is indeed a charmer, and then some. Even if I couldn't understand half of his English words those first days, I still loved listening to him speak. The way those RRRRRs rolled off of his tongue made me feel like each sentence was caressing me. And once I could understand his words, I was bowled over by his sincerity and his inhibition to reveal his deepest feelings. 

HALLIE: What’s it like to ride an elephant in a bikini?

KATHLEEN: Riding an elephant is a hoot. I'd never ridden an elephant before the first time I rode one in the show, and we’re not talking about a lazy stroll through a meadow.

In an instant, I was tossed onto an 8000-pound trotting beast and bounding into the ring. Trumpets were blaring and spotlights swirling. I was bouncing along, legs clutched around her neck, jiggling and giggling and trying not to fall face first in the dirt. Then the real fun began when she stood on her hind legs and nearly sent me tumbling down her back. It was a lot like riding a roller coaster -- both terrifying and exhilarating all at once. 

Now, about that bikini -- which was actually a pink, skimpy one-piece. The problem wasn't so much the costume, but the lack of costume in some important places. Ever heard of elephant rash?

Coarse black hairs sprout out of an elephant’s hide in the most inappropriate places, and sliding your body parts over them is like bathing with a wire brush. Trust me, there’s not a damn thing a pair of fishnets will do to protect your delicate skin.

HALLIE: Growing up, were you the kind of kid who tested boundaries? Because not all of us would jump into a tank full of sharks and paddle around. Willingly.

KATHLEEN: Absolutely. I was always anxious to know What comes next? Always running toward the next corner and what I could not see. I rarely took no for an answer -- even though there were times when I should have...

My mom did a great job instilling in me the belief that I could do anything. I don't recall ever discussing with her the merits of diving
-- or not diving -- into a shark tank, so imagine how surprised I was to learn after I’d been in the circus shark tank that she too had swum with sharks in an exhibition for US Divers at the Los Angeles Coliseum Swim Stadium when she was just a teen. 

HALLIE: Wow. Like mother like daughter: in spades!

Wondering how you feel about the latest announcement that Ringling Brothers will no longer feature elephants. What will happen to them?

KATHLEEN: I was ecstatic to hear the news that Feld Entertainment would phase elephants out of their traveling shows. I wish it wouldn’t take three years, and I wish it included their other exotic animals as well, but it’s still a huge stride forward.

Apparently, they will be transferring the 13 performing elephants to their 200-acre reserve in Florida. I read that they spend $65,000 a year caring for each elephant – which is nearly $1,000,000 per year for just those 13 animals. How, or if, they’ll have those funds available without using them to generate revenue remains to be seen.

And, as an aside, a portion of book sales will be donated to elephant sanctuaries. 

HALLIE: Were elephants your favorite animal in the circus?

KATHLEEN: I love elephants – not only for their intelligence and beauty, but also for how calm and graceful they usually were, even while being kept in chains.  Some of that tranquility rubbed off on Stefano, who was usually pretty high strung.

And I loved the specific elephants Stefano worked with in the circus. Each one had its own personality and funny quirks – and they literally played cupid while I fell in love with my elephant keeper.

But the animal who really stole my heart was Baros, a giraffe. A giraffe is such an elegant animal, though very skittish as well, and Baros didn’t have anyone who cared enough to befriend him until I came along.

It took months, but I worked from him tentatively grabbing a lettuce leaf out of my hand before bolting away to entering his pen when he was sitting down, his most vulnerable state. Baros loved it when I massaged his ears and ossicones – used to drape his chin over my shoulder and I’d feel these big giraffe-breaths whooshing through him and over me. Our companionship helped me through some tough times in the circus.

HALLIE: What has working with elephants, sharks, an ostrich and a giraffe taught you about getting along with people?

KATHLEEN: Respect. And how important it is to allow people and animals the emotional and physical space they need to be themselves. You can never forget that no matter how many harnesses and headdresses you strap onto a wild animal, they're still wild at heart. Forgetting that at the wrong moment could cost you your life. 

We humans try to do the same with each other, especially the people closest to us. We embrace the attributes we want and smother the ones we don't without acknowledging that these expressions are two halves of the same seed. Separate the two, and you're left with a fraction of a person, and that’s never a winning scenario.

HALLIE: Where can readers find you talking about this wonderful book?

KATHLEEN: The official launch party is planned for April 25 at Pfeiffer Winery in Junction City, Oregon – fantastic people and fantastic wine. I couldn’t hope for a better setting. Readings are also planned in Eugene, Corvallis and Portland, Oregon, as well as Seattle and San Francisco. Hope to add more locations soon. Anyone interested in attending is welcome to check the events section of my website: I’m also available for book clubs and blog tours, and I can be reached through the contact page on the site.

HALLIE: I'm still thinking about the chafing issue. Ouch.

So does running away to join the circus figure in your dreams? And IF did, what would you want to be? Dancing girl? Juggler? Swimmer with sharks? Trapeze artist? Clown? Acrobat? Lion tamer? Ringmaster?


Joan Emerson said...

I can't say I ever dreamed of running away to join the circus, but Kathleen's adventure is amazing . . . can't wait to read the book.
And while it will seem strange not to see the elephants at the circus, I, too, am glad they will be going to the elephant sanctuary.

Karen in Ohio said...

Trying to wrap my head around the idea of 13 elephants in Florida. Having seen them in the wild, it defies imagination to think of a group that size enclosed in 200 acres, let alone the kind of cages they live in while traveling.

What a fascinating life, Kathleen! Since the closest I came to a circus was watching a movie about one until I was an adult, it never occurred to me to want to run away to one. Also, I'm a big chicken. So I greatly admire the derring-do required for almost everything about circus performers and animal handlers.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Whoo! AMazing. And--well, amazing.

I guess I would want to be the bareback rider--it always looked so exhilarating. After you got over the standing on a cantering horse thing.

But I actually wish I had met you sooner! I am not a big circus fan, but I bet you could have changed my perception. And you are now my role model for adventure.

Congratulations on what sounds like a wonderful book. When you look back--what do you think about this days?

Mary Sutton said...

If you wrote that backstory for a character, no one would believe it. Amazing!

I've never wanted to run away and join a circus. Then again, I have two kids. So I kind of live in one (a very small one).

Hallie Ephron said...

I know what I'd want to be: a clown. Definitely. I've been to the circus many many times. Love it. Especially the Big Apple Circus. Especially Grandma the clown (Barry Lubin) who has sadly retired. He 'bonded' with my mother in law at a performance when she was in her late 70s. Such sweet gentle hilarious humor.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Kathleen! We hear so much about how circus animals are mistreated and suffer from lives of confinement, social deprivation, and violent methods of training/abuse. What are your thoughts?

Kathleen Cremonesi said...

Thank you Hallie and all the Jungle Red Writers. I appreciate the opportunity to be on your blog and your enthusiasm for Love in the Elephant Tent. And Hallie - I read about the release of your new book, Night Night Sleep Tight. Very intriguing. Looking forward to reading it soon -- and I love your pink pearls.

Hank Phillippi Ryan - Thank you for your question. When I look back on those circus days, I mostly feel gratitude. How could I not after meeting the love of my life there?

Anyone who's ever been in love knows that falling in love is the easy part. I'd been running from emotionally risky situations for years, and Stefano had his own baggage as well. At times, we felt as trapped as the circus animals were - and maybe that's a good thing since it made it harder for us to run away from each other when things got tough. Those years were my transition between youth and maturity, and I tried to be true to that experience in the book. I had some important lessons to learn at that stage in my life, and I'm thankful to the circus for providing a place where both Stefano and I could learn how to make falling in love evolve into a life-long relationship.

Susan Elia MacNeal - I also feel sadness in regards to the animals when I look back. I was young and still learning how to balance my own emotional attachment to them with the ethical issues of keeping animals in such conditions. Circus animals are mistreated and abused every day. Even though I never personally witnessed beatings and violence, chaining an 8000-pound elephant to a 6-by-10-foot wooden slab for over 23 hours a day is in itself serious abuse. I feel very strongly that all elephants and exotic animals should be banned from traveling performances. TEAPA - the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act - originally penned in 2011 and reintroduced to congress in 2013, has yet to gain enough support to see its way through congress. Hopefully Ringling's recent decision will help change that.

Thank you again - and I'm happy to answer more questions!

Mark Pryor said...

What a wonderful interview and a fascinating story. I never read non-fiction but I will be making an exception, and I can't wait.

Thanks for sharing with us!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

This is an amazing story Kathleen, and we're so glad to be hosting you on JRW!

I never considered running away to the circus--I don't have the physical adventure gene I guess. I will definitely read this, but wondering how in the world you fell in with the gypsies and what that relationship was like?

Rhys said...

I used to play at being Patsy of the Circus when I was a child. I built a trapeze in our orchard and did stupidly daring stunts on it (and never fell off)
And I've always loved elephants. So glad they'll no longer be performing in circus.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Wow -- what an amazing story!

As a teenager, I got to see the Ringling Brothers Circus elephants take baths in the Baraboo River in Wisconsin, then their summer HQ. So much fun to see them splashing, squirting each other, and playing. Now that we know the reality of their daily treatment, I'm glad I got a chance to see them just being themselves.

Kathleen Cremonesi said...

Hi Lucy -- thank you for hosting me.

Ahhh, the gypsies! They were quite a curious bunch. I should clarify that when I use the word "gypsy," I'm referring to Bohemian nomads, not Romani Gypsies.

In an earlier (and much longer) version of the book, there were a handful of chapters detailing the adventure between Amsterdam and joining the circus in Villarreal, Spain. As I mentioned in the interview with Hallie, the busking didn't go too well. There were four of us that started out from Amsterdam in boy-girl pairs, thinking that the boys might offer a little protection should get sketchy while hitchhiking, and we planned to meet up in towns along the way. With the other pair, she ended up protecting him. In my pair, I ended up having to fend off my "protector." He and I quickly went our separate ways. A little farther south, I ran into the other couple, and she was anxious to ditch him too, so us two girls ended up traveling south together and having some, um, interesting adventures -- including being chased by knife-wielding young men in southern France. (If you're reading this, Mom, you are correct: I absolutely did leave that episode out of our conversations back then!)

When we ran into the buskers again in northern Spain, they didn't seem so bad after all. They'd already connected with the English gypsies, who were looking to round out their orange-picking crew. Next thing I knew, I was sleeping on the dash board of an old Bella Vega bus, frying freshly picked almonds over a campfire, and trying to earn a little cash picking oranges.

A bus is fine when riding around a city, but when you and nearly a dozen others are living, cooking, and sleeping inside, it gets real small, real quick. There were occasional clashes, but after a month of sleeping in fields and squatting in abandon farm houses, it seemed a fair trade for warm meals and a dry space. I really liked a few of the people - especially the bus owners Steve and Isabella. If we had managed to earn decent money picking oranges, I may have stuck around longer and would never have ended up in the circus.

The day we'd already been working in a drizzle for a few hours and the foreman came out to inform us that the pesticides were harmful when oranges were wet, enough was enough. Within a week, I'd traded my paisley skirts and moccasins for a rhinestone bikini and ruby stilettos!

That's when the real adventures started...

Kathleen Cremonesi said...

Thank you, Karen. Funny, I never wanted to run away with one either! As far as the handlers go, they have some of the most dangerous jobs there are. Many are missing fingers or have lifelong injuries from that work. Although some workers are abusive toward their charges, many others do truly care about the animals. Nonetheless, I feel it would be better if the animals weren't in that situation to need our "handling."

Kathleen Cremonesi said...

Thank You Joan! If you are interested in reading more about sanctuaries, I have a couple of my favorites sanctuaries link on my website under the help save elephants tab.

Kathleen Cremonesi said...

Thank you Hank. Just realized that each comment has an individual reply button - after I replied to your question in the main comment stream. Oops. On the adventure part, I was game for just about anything as long as the risk was physical. Emotional risk not so much...

Have to say I would have loved to try bareback riding if they'd offered the opportunity!

Kathy Reel said...

My dreams ran more towards running away to join an archeological dig, although I have had nothing to do with that as an adult. However, I do really enjoy mysteries with archeological connections.

Kathleen, as I read your amazing post here, I had to keep reminding myself that it was a true story, not one of the fiction pieces we usually discuss. I was talking to my five-year-old granddaughter today, who was showing me some rather impressive drawings she had done, and she told me that she didn't know what she would be when she grew up because there were so many things she liked to do. I think the one thing we missed was joining the circus. What is so fantastic to me about your story is that the adult you hadn't lost that wide-open life is an adventure that children possess. The world is full of possibilities, and the circus is a perfectly viable choice. Kudos to you for living the adventure that too many adults won't allow themselves. Your bravery deserves high praise, too.

I not only want to read this book myself, but I'd like to have it for my granddaughters to read at some point.

Kathleen Cremonesi said...

What a lovely comment, Kathy Reel. Thank you - I hope you, and someday your granddaughters, enjoy the book!