A poem about an adventurous sailor helped inspire Alice Clark Brown to see the world, though not from “the rolling deck” described by writer Langston Hughes.
She saw it from the rolling back of an elephant.
She was one of the first Black women to work as a showgirl, dancer and aerial acrobat with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Mrs. Brown, 68, died June 6 of pulmonary fibrosis at her Oak Park home, according to her husband Geoff Brown.
She was a 19-year-old Andy Frain “usherette” at the old International Amphitheatre when the circus came to town.
Growing up, she wasn’t athletic and was scared to even ride a Ferris wheel. She once told the Chicago Daily News, “I was the worst student in my gym class.”
But she fell under the spell of the circus and decided to audition.
Despite her inexperience — she had no formal ballet training — her smile and charisma impressed Antoinette Concello, the circus’s aerial director, a legendary trapeze artist and member of the Flying Concellos who appeared in the 1952 film “The Greatest Show on Earth” and trained Betty Hutton, its star.
A determined young Alice learned some choreography from a helpful dancer with the circus and asked for a second audition. She aced it and signed a Ringling contract in 1971.
The circus was split into two touring companies, denoted the Red Unit and the Blue Unit, each with its own headliners. Mrs. Brown is believed to have been the first Black showgirl in the Blue Unit, according to Heidi Connor, chief archivist at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.
Mrs. Brown traded her Andy Frain uniform for sequinned and feathered costumes that cost $1,200 half a century ago. She left wintry Chicago for Florida, where she could reach out the windows of the circus train and pluck oranges off the trees and wave at people who came to greet the performers passing through.
The train chugged across America and Canada, filled largely with European acrobats, clowns and animal trainers. Heading to the cafe car, “You might pass through the Romanian car, the Hungarian car, the Polish car. There would be someone cooking, and you get all these smells from the different countries. It was very exciting,” Mrs. Brown said in an interview for a Ringling oral history.
Riding on the elephants was “kind of scary for me because I was afraid of heights,” she said.
When the animals performed headstands, she said, “If you’re not careful, you’ll topple right over the elephant’s head.”
At first, “You were way up high because they’re standing up on their hind legs,” she said in the oral history interview. “They would topple down and do their headstand. You had to just stay pinned on. I had noticed other circuses where the girls held on, but, in the Blue Unit, you could not do that because our tricks were so hard to do. You had to let go. I had to learn how to let centrifugal force work with that so that I could stay on.”
Looking at old photos, she said: “As you can see, it looks like I’m defying gravity.”
Years later, as elephant acts fell out of favor amid calls to leave them in their natural habitat, she maintained the animals were always treated well at her circus.
Mrs. Brown also learned how to do the Spanish web aerial act. Showgirls climbed a rope, did acrobatic tricks and spun around, sometimes upside-down, holding onto the spinning rope by only a foot, a knee or a wrist.
“When you get 24 girls doing that at the same time, it’s an aerial ballet,” said retired circus clown Peggy Williams.
Her family said she met famous people including Coretta Scott King, football star Roosevelt Grier and singer Chaka Khan.
Mrs. Brown was fascinated by Ringling Bros. animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.
“He had such a magnetism, almost like the Michael Jackson of the circus,” she said in her interview.
She worked with choreographer Richard Barstow, who also created dance numbers for the 1954 Judy Garland-James Mason film “A Star Is Born.”
She had so much fun at her job, she said: “I felt like sometimes I should be paying the circus.”
Mrs. Brown was often featured in news stories. TV’s Barbara Walters once interviewed her. “She was good P.R. for the circus,” said her sister Anna Clark.
In a 1972 article in the Philadelphia Daily News, Mrs. Brown said, “I think the circus is fun, and I’m glad to be here not only for myself but Blacks in general. It is important that they be represented in every aspect of American life.”
Circus glamour didn’t safeguard her against racism. While visiting a Texas restaurant with other performers who were white, everyone else at her table got served. Her friends asked where her food was, but it never arrived. At a circus gathering at a Florida restaurant, the others’ meals were fine. Her plate arrived crawling with ants, her family said.
The King Charles Troupe, the first all-Black act with Ringling Brothers, kept a protective eye out for her, said retired member Floyd “Sweets” Harrison. When men asked if she was a relative of the unicycle-riding, basketball-dunking group, troupe members fibbed and said “ ‘She’s my little niece.’ They thought she was related to those crazy King Charles guys,” Harrison said.
She grew up on the South Side, the daughter of Charles Clark from Meridian, Mississippi, who insisted on buying his daughters boys’ shoes because he thought they’d last longer than girls’ footwear. The result, her sister said, was being chased home by kids who taunted them with cries of “Boy shoes! Boy shoes!”
Little Alice, Anna and their brother Gerry Clark “explored Washington Park from one end to the other with bread and baloney and Kool-Aid,” her sister said.
After Burke grade school, she attended DuSable High School, where her art teacher was Margaret Burroughs, who co-founded the DuSable Museum of African American History.
The children’s mother Mattie, who was from what’s now known as Weir, Mississippi, introduced them to the city’s museums and the Hall Library at 4801 S. Michigan Ave.
Young Alice loved to read. Hughes was one of her favorite writers. She said his poem “Sailor” captured the wanderlust she felt.
And she loved going to the old Regal Theater to see and hear the Five Stairsteps, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, the Temptations, Jackie Wilson and Aretha Franklin.
After three years on the road with the circus, Mrs. Brown decided to come home to hone her singing and acting, her sister said.
She worked as a tour guide at Johnson Publishing, 820 S. Michigan Ave. That’s where she met her future husband, Geoff Brown, then an entertainment writer with Jet magazine.
“She looked up at me and smiled, and, I’m telling you, love at first sight for me,” he said.
When she died, they’d been married for 44 years.
While raising a family, she also did theater, played piano and sang in nightclubs under the name Brandee Brown.
When she auditioned for the Black Ensemble Theater to portray Nettie Dorsey, wife of gospel legend Thomas Dorsey, his niece — famed music teacher Lena McLin — “started crying and said, ‘That’s Nettie.’ She figured that’s what got her the job,” her husband said.
Mrs. Brown and her son Geoffrey worked as extras in the 1988 Judge Reinhold-Fred Savage movie “Vice Versa.”
“She was in the ‘greatest show on Earth,’ but she was always the greatest mom on Earth,” her son said.
“She was able to take risks and put herself out there in a way I was always in awe of,” her daughter Christina said.
Mrs. Brown was a vice president of the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action, a group that helped get landmark status for the school, her family said.
In 2018, she interviewed fellow alum and historian Timuel D. Black at an Illinois Humanities Council event.
In 2004, she fulfilled a promise to her mother and got her college degree, in English, from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
She made delicious pineapple upside-down cake and macaroni and cheese, her children said, loved Fashion Fair cosmetics and wore red lipstick always.
Services have been held.
Family members said that, at the end of her life, Mrs. Brown asked them to play two songs for her — “You Make Me So Very Happy” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
Contributing: Rick Telander