Patricia Sainer, who left Bridgeport at 17 for a life in the circus, dead at 80; loved to clown, make kids laugh

‘Once the smell of sawdust and the excitement gets into your blood, it’s awfully difficult to look away when you hear that old calliope,’ she told an interviewer.

SHARE Patricia Sainer, who left Bridgeport at 17 for a life in the circus, dead at 80; loved to clown, make kids laugh
A young Patricia Sainer and her clown collection.

A young Patricia Sainer and her clown collection.

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Patricia Sainer went from collecting clown dolls to joining the circus.

She was 17 years old in the late 1950s when she left home in Bridgeport to go on the road as a clown and showgirl and do juggling and trapeze work.

She traveled around the country and in Canada, sometimes in greasepaint and sometimes in feathers and spangles. She loved to make kids laugh.

“Once the smell of sawdust and the excitement gets into your blood,” she told an interviewer, “it’s awfully difficult to look away when you hear that old calliope.”

Mrs. Sainer, 80, who’d been in failing health, died last month at Lee Manor in Des Plaines, according to her husband Jim.

For her, circus life offered an escape.

“What a contrast it offered to a kid from a cold-water flat,” she said in an interview for John Aranza’s book “My Bridgeport.” “I helped raise my four younger brothers and sisters since I was 13 while my parents worked.”

A teenage Patricia Sainer with her many clown dolls.

A teenage Patricia Sainer with her many clown dolls.

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At 17, she sneaked backstage at the old International Amphitheatre to meet Emmett Kelly, she said in a 1964 interview with an employee publication at Sears, where she once worked. She’d idolized Kelly — known for his hobo character “Weary Willie” — after reading his autobiography “Clown.”

When she told him her dream of joining the circus, “He told me, ‘Go home, and get married; there’s no room in Clown Alley for a girl,’ ” Mrs. Sainer said. “This didn’t discourage me. Instead, it made me more determined to be a clown.”

One of her first jobs was in the sideshow at Chicago’s old Riverview Park.

“She’d talk about the Alligator Man and the Bearded Lady,” her husband said.

Young “Patsy” dressed in a costume with another performer as the “Four-Legged Girl.”

Patricia Sainer worked as a clown with circuses including the Cristiani Bros. Circus, at one time “the biggest tent show on the road.”

Patricia Sainer worked as a clown with circuses including the Cristiani Bros. Circus, at one time “the biggest tent show on the road.”

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She got hired by one of the big names in the circus world: the Cristiani Bros. Circus.

“When the Ringling brothers folded their [big canvas] tent in 1956, Cristiani was the biggest tent show on the road,” said circus historian Tim Tegge, a ringmaster with the Royal Hanneford Circus.

Patricia Sainer in one of her many costumes.

Patricia Sainer in one of her many costumes.

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Patricia Sainer in her showgirl garb.

Patricia Sainer in her showgirl garb.

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Over the years, Mrs. Sainer also performed with the Adams Bros. Circus, the Cody and Kipling Bros. Circus and Harold Bros. Circus. And she performed as a showgirl, clown and barker with Royal American Shows, a traveling carnival.

One time, Mrs. Sainer rode an elephant in a parade down State Street.

“She hated that because the hairs stuck her,” her husband said. “They had big, wiry hairs.”

Another time, she avoided a stampede when a storm spooked the elephants.

“I thought it was thunder, but another clown pulled me out of the way at the last second, saving me from being trampled,” she told the Sears employee publication.

Patricia Sainer (fourth from right) during her time with Royal American Shows.

Patricia Sainer (fourth from right) during her time with Royal American Shows.

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By the time she was 23, having been on the road for about five years then, her romance with the circus cooled. It could be a lonely life, she said. There were few female clowns, so she sometimes had to bunk alone at a motel or even sleep behind a partition in a truck that transported the performing bears, she told Aranza.

When she returned to Chicago, she got her high school equivalency diploma and started a successful sales career. She sold Avon products and worked at a Montgomery Ward’s wig bar.

She also sold furs to customers including Muhammad Ali at Evans Furs, Carson Pirie Scott & Co. and Marshall Field’s, according to Jim Sainer, who said his wife got so good at her job that, with barely a glance at a fur commercial on TV, she could say, “Look at that ermine!”

Later, she got bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. Xavier University, where she also taught public speaking and communications. She taught at Columbia College Chicago, too, according to her family.

“One thing she always instilled in me was hard work and being determined,” her son Joshua said. “She valued the fact that she came from a rough life with nothing and then was able to work her way to get back into school. She really enjoyed being a teacher and working with students who didn’t have those opportunities.”

Mrs. Sainer was the daughter of Frances and Christopher Cosentino, a truck driver.

Her paternal uncle was Jerry Cosentino, who twice served as Illinois’ state treasurer.

She attended Ward grade school and Kelly High School and St. Mary of Perpetual Help High School before leaving at 17 for the circus, her family said.

Mrs. Sainer also is survived by her sister Carol O’Keefe and brother Thomas Cosentino.

At her funeral service, her family nestled her Emmett Kelly doll in with one of the floral arrangements.

She once said she had no regrets and offered this advice: “Don’t ever not try something that is good. Don’t put your dreams in a drawer.”

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