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: http://www.KathleenCremonesi.com 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?