Alice Clark Brown, Black Star in a White Circus, Dies at 68

As a young girl in Chicago in the late 1950s, Alice Clark Brown was entranced by a television show called “Circus Boy,” especially the opening montage, in which a character named Corky rides a baby elephant.

“I used to really admire him riding that elephant,” she said years later.

Fast-forward a few years. The child actor on the elephant, billed at the time as Mickey Braddock, became Micky Dolenz, one of the Monkees. And Ms. Brown became an elephant rider herself, with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

She is thought to be the first Black showgirl in one of the two touring companies of Ringling Brothers.

Her riding feat, on a full-grown beast, was considerably more daring than Mr. Dolenz’s casual stroll. For one thing, the elephants were not strolling, as she described in an oral history recorded at a 2017 reunion of circus performers.

“The number was called ‘The Cakewalk Jamboree,’ and the elephants would come galloping out,” she said, adding, “Then they would stand on their hind legs, so you were on the elephants, and you were way up high.”

And then the elephants would pivot earthward into a headstand, the rider rocketing forward with her animal. In other circuses, a rider might grab the harness to maintain balance, but not in the Ringling arena. Photographs from the time show Ms. Brown triumphantly astride her headstanding elephant, arms raised high, her elaborate headdress perfectly in place.

“I had to learn how to let centrifugal force work with that so that I could stay on and never hold on, never never,” she said.

The effect was striking. “It looks like I’m defying gravity,” she said.

Ms. Brown died on June 6 at her home in Oak Park, Ill. She was 68.

Her husband, Geoffrey F. Brown, said the cause was interstitial lung disease.

Ms. Brown was with the circus only from 1971 to 1974, but she was celebrated both for her arena acrobatics — she danced high above the ground in aerial ballets — and for breaking a barrier.

“I think the circus is fun and I’m glad to be here, not only for myself but for Blacks in general,” she told The Daily News of Philadelphia in 1972. “It is important that they be represented in every aspect of American life.”

Alice Ruth Clark was born on Aug. 22, 1952, in Chicago. Her father, Charles, worked at Libby, McNeill & Libby, the canned-goods company, and her mother, Mattie (Miller) Clark, was a homemaker.

She graduated from DuSable High School in Chicago in 1969 and was a student at the University of Illinois when, in 1971, the circus came to the International Amphitheater in Chicago. She was working there as an usher, and the interest she had developed watching “Circus Boy” was reignited.

She tried out and in December 1971 joined the circus, leaving college behind for the moment. She was sent to the circus’s training ground in Florida, where Antoinette Concello, a famed performer who was then aerial director for the circus, helped her improve her dancing and overcome her fear of heights.

“Mrs. Concello said, ‘Now if you don’t learn these tricks, girl, we’re going to have to send you home,’” she said in the oral history. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t let that happen.’ I started practicing extra hard until finally, I finally did the tricks along with all the other girls, way up high.”

In 1972 she began performing in shows. She also became something of a public face for the circus, doing interviews with newspapers and with Barbara Walters on the “Today” show.

She was a rare Black star in the Ringling arena at the time. In the 19th century P.T. Barnum had used Black performers odiously, exhibiting them freak-show style, and almost a century later few had been elevated to star status.

At the time Ms. Brown joined, the circus had two different troupes touring, the Red Unit and the Blue. The Red Unit had a Black showgirl, Jackie Walker, but Ms. Brown is believed to have been the first Black showgirl to be hired in the Blue group, Heidi Connor, chief archivist at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., told The Chicago Sun-Times.

“When I first joined it was kind of funny,” Ms. Brown told The Daily News of Philadelphia seven months into the job. “Some people acted like they didn’t like Black people. Now everybody has gotten used to me, and things are much better.”

Touring the South, she occasionally experienced the kinds of discrimination familiar to earlier generations of Black performers.

“I noticed those confederate flags and the John Birch Society signs,” she said in the oral history. “I thought, ‘Careful; be very careful.’ Sure enough, there were places there in the South, a couple of places, that wouldn’t serve me.”

Most of her memories, though, were pleasant. She especially enjoyed her time on the circus train, and exploring cities where the show stopped. Her younger sister, Anna Clark, joined her in New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston and others, and they would travel around town together.

“She would say, ‘Hey, this is an interesting looking place; why don’t you come see me?’” Ms. Clark said in a phone interview. “I took my first plane ride because of her.”

“The world was our oyster,” she added. “We were trying to find out how many pearls we could locate.”

After the 1974 season Ms. Brown left the circus, thinking she might travel to Europe and sign on with a small circus there, but when her mother had a stroke, that plan fell by the wayside. Soon after, while working as a tour guide at Johnson Publishing in Chicago, she met Mr. Brown, who was on the staff of its Jet magazine. They married in 1977. (Mr. Brown eventually became a top editor at The Chicago Tribune.)

While raising a family, Ms. Brown dabbled in other types of performing in the Chicago area, appearing in plays, playing piano and singing and appearing as an extra in a few movies.

Mr. Brown said that when his wife would talk about her circus years, “She was quite proud of how strong she had become.”

“She was always, ‘I got so nice and muscular,’” he said in a phone interview.

He said she was dismayed at the animal-rights protest that cast the circus in a bad light in its later years, since she had never witnessed any mistreatment. When the circus would come through Chicago in later years, he said, they would sometimes attend, and she would always make a point of seeing if anyone she knew from the old days was among the cast and crew.

Some three decades after she had interrupted her collegiate studies, she returned to school, earning an English degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004.

In addition to her husband and her sister, Ms. Brown is survived by a son, Geoffrey Jr.; a daughter, Christina L. Brown; and a brother, Gerry Clark.

Anna Clark said that, more than once, Ms. Concello, the aerial director, asked if she wanted to join Alice in the circus. They could work up a sister act, she suggested. But she knew she was no Alice.

“I had to remind her that I get a nosebleed from getting up on a stepladder,” she said. “I just wasn’t that brave. I wasn’t as brave as her.”

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