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A different kind of circus story

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image Gloria Wilkinson of Gibsonton loves to tell people she ran away to join the circus at 51. Photo Penny Fletcher

She's been a clown, a magician, a costume-maker and promoter ... all after her five kids were grown.

By PENNY FLETCHER

This is a different kind of story and there’s only one way to tell it- just the way it happened.

It all started with a conversation I had with Cindy Keeler, a clerk at the Dollar General store in Apollo Beach.

“I think my mom is kind of interesting,” Cindy said as I was putting a few things in my basket. The conversation had started because I thought something she had said sounded like it could possibly be a news story, but it had nothing to do with her mother. At that point, I didn’t even know she had a mother living nearby.

“Yes, my mom’s done a lot of things. She used to be with the circus,” Cindy said.

My reporter’s antenna grew a little.

“She likes to say she ran away and joined the circus when she was 51.”

Now I was listening. But at that point I had no idea the kind of exciting tale I would hear from “Mom.”

The day of our interview I drove to a modest home in Gibsonton where the two, both the mothers of five grown children, now live.

Cindy introduced me to her mother and quickly disappeared.

“I don’t really know where to start,” said Gloria Wilkinson. She laughed. “I’ve done a lot of things since my kids grew up.”

As a reporter for a good portion of my adult life, I’ve heard a lot of stories, some sad, some hilariously funny, and some, like Gloria’s, just plain fascinating. But I didn’t know it was fascinating yet. I just had a feeling it was going to take awhile to hear it.

I pulled out my notebook.

“Well, where do you want me to start?’ Gloria asked.

“The beginning would be a good place.”

She laughed again. “Oh no, that would take all day and I know you have other places to go. Do you want to hear about my time with Ringling Brothers, or some of the things I’ve been doing lately? Sometimes I drive to casinos- all over the country- and supervise trained chickens that play tic-tac-toe for the guest’s amusement.”

“I worked in wardrobe. I made costumes for a lot of wonderful performers,” she went on, jumping from one subject to the next entirely too fast for me to take proper notes.

“I like to zip-line. For my 75th birthday I zip lined 650-feet above the tree line near a live volcano in Costa Rica. Would you like to hear about that?”

This woman is more than 75?

As it turned out, she’s 80, and I thought she looked about 30 years younger than that.

I believe Cindy was laughing in the other room. “I think my mother is kind of interesting,” she had said.

Uh- yea. At this point I wasn’t even sure where to start.

I took a deep breath. “OK,” I said. “Let’s start at the beginning. I’m not in any real hurry.”

“All right. I’ll start with my second life. The one I’ve been living since my kids grew up,” Gloria said. Even her voice sparkled with excitement. I had a feeling I was in for a wild ride. I sat back and made sure I had plenty of paper and pens. Oh, why don’t I put my laptop in the car just in case I run into something like this? I thought.

“The only job I’d ever had was as a dog groomer, and after the kids grew up, I knew I wanted to try something different,” she began. “At 51, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I had a friend who had just put out an album. So I started helping him promote it.”

During her time as a promoter, she met someone who was starting a clown business and also someone who would become her future agent.

She took an adult clown course and began performing at birthday parties and schools and other events. “Sometimes whole school auditoriums were filled with laughing children,” she said.

I noticed her resume said Florissant Valley Community College in St. Louis: The Art of Clowning, and East Central Community College in Union, Missouri: art, sculpture and printing. Ah- so this was how she began making the horse’s heads and llama costumes and making people look like citrus fruits, I thought, looking at the array of photographs she was showing me as we talked.

So you can become a costume-maker after studying art and sculpture. Who would’a known?

Next on the resume I saw the word “Magician” and asked her about it.

“Oh, when you take up clowning, you have to learn a certain amount of magic,” Gloria told me.

That makes sense. How else are the clowns going to pull rabbits out of their hats and flowers from their sleeves?

Some time around 1983, her character Moonbeam the Clown was born.

It wasn’t long before Moonbeam wanted to run away and join the circus.

And then it happened: Ringling Brothers came to town.

“I went to see the clowns with some home-made cookies. I told them if they wanted someone to show them around town while they were there, just to call me.”

While they were in town, Gloria kept going to visit and finally asked for a job.

“But Ringling has its own clown college course you have to have taken in order to perform for them. They told me I couldn’t go with them, but I kept going back until they let me fill out a resume for any other job just so I could go with them.”

She turned it in the day before Thanksgiving and someone said they would let her know after the holiday.

“That was one long holiday weekend,” she said. But on Monday, they called and offered her a job. It wasn’t Gloria’s clowning they wanted, but her skills in promotion and wardrobe. 

During her 12 years with Ringling Brothers, Gloria maintained more than $1 million worth of costumes at a time, becoming head of the wardrobe department that averaged 500 costumes for its 138 performers.

She dressed dancers and high wire artists — maintaining all the costumes (that Ringling had made by a professional company).

“There was this one woman,” she said showing me a photograph of a young girl in a butterfly costume with huge out-spread wings, “who spun around so fast all the sequins would come off after every performance and I’d put them all back on.”

While with Ringling, Gloria said she was proud to have been only one of two people who were not performers in a $30,000 photo shoot. “Just me and the performance director,” she said, showing me the 3-page fold-out photo from a magazine. 

Her promotion skills also landed her as a spokeswoman for the circus and she got to go on Good Morning, America, Extra, and Bill Cosby’s You Bet Your Life.

“I also did a lot of local radio and television spots,” she said, still showing me supporting material.

The parade of pages of programs, brochures and magazines went on.

Several times she said, “You don’t want to hear any more, do you?” obviously ready to stop at any time.

I kept telling her I wasn’t in any hurry.

After 12 years, she decided to change to the Big Apple Circus based in New York as wardrobe supervisor. There she not only could maintain the costumes, but build them from scratch.

Now there were pages of horse’s heads and fruits and a Donald Duck head that moved. “This ass was from a scene in Midsummer Night’s Dream,” she told me, showing me a donkey she had crafted.

After a few years, Gloria decided to get involved with moving pictures and was costume designer for Wild Heart Films where she not only made costumes, but built special effects. While there, she did small parts in two films as well: All the World and Sanderson County.

After a few years there, she took the position of designer of illusions for Ward Hall’s World of Wonders and Grand Illusion Show, and created characters including snake girl, spidora, the 4-legged girl, half woman and two-headed woman.

Her circus career ended when she retired in 2006, but since then she has taken up chicken-wrangling at casinos across the country and making decorative pieces out of eggs.

“They drop off trained Leghorns at the casinos and I supervise them and then the company picks them up,” she said. Her first chicken-wrangling job was at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and for the last three years, she has driven to several destinations when called.

“But while I’m at the casino I get bored so I started making things out of eggs. One time, she used an ostrich egg and made a stage inside with a chicken on it.

“I’ve fulfilled everything on my bucket list except a ride in a hot air balloon,” she told me nearing the end of her story.

“My son arranged for us to skydive. He said it’s nice to have a hobby he can share with his mom.”

She’s zip-lined, ridden a motorcycle across many states and New York City, and bungie jumped in Oklahoma. But her favorite memories are of being a clown.

“Yes, on Good Morning, America they called me the grandma who ran away to the circus.”

Now busy writing a children’s book called The Chicken Chronicles about the personalities of the Leghorns she knows, she says she’s waiting to fulfill that last thing on her bucket list — the hot air balloon ride.

I suggested she contact someone connected with the Brandon Balloon Festival.

“I might just do that!” she said.

I think a couple of hours had passed. I know the next time somebody tells me “I think my mother is interesting,” I’ll take my laptop.

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