Thursday, January 13, 2011


2 Performers Die as Ringling Circus Train Derails
The New York Times
Published: January 14, 1994

A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus train derailed yesterday on a foggy stretch of track a mile east of Lakeland, Fla., killing a nationally known elephant trainer and a clown and injuring 15 people.

The Polk County Sheriff's Department said the cause of the derailment was unknown and is under investigation. The 53-car train, which derailed at 9:15 A.M., carried 200 performers and circus workers as well as 60 animals in the circus's Blue Unit, one of two Ringling shows that travel across the country in circus trains.

"It's Ringling's most serious train accident in more than 100 years," said a circus spokeswoman, Laura FitzGerald. The train was traveling 35 miles an hour, she said, adding that she did not know if fog had contributed to the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

Ms. FitzGerald identified the dead trainer as Theodore Svertesky, 39, of Bridgeport, Conn. A leading elephant trainer who headed the Ringling Elephant Farm, a research and breeding facility in Williston, Fla., Mr. Svertesky also performed in the center ring. He presented the Blue Show's headline attractions, Romeo and Juliet, 1-year-old Asian elephants who were making their debut with the show.

Officials said Ceslee Conkling, 28, of Fort Worth, Tex., a clown who performed in the show, was also killed. Animals Are Unharmed

Among the performers injured were a clown, a member of the band, two dancers and four members of a Chinese acrobatic troupe. All were treated for minor injuries at Lakeland Regional Medical Center and released.

No animals were in the 17 cars that derailed, and none was injured. After the accident, two members of a television news crew from Orlando were injured when their helicopter crashed behind a nearby high school.

The derailment occurred at a crossing at the intersection of State Route 92 and Fish Hatchery Road as the train traveled from St. Petersburg to an engagement in Orlando on Friday.

Ms. FitzGerald said it had not yet been decided whether the Friday performance in Orlando would be held. The show is scheduled to work its way north, traveling from city to city until its official world premiere in Madison Square Garden on March 24.

Ms. Ceslee Conkling December 6, 1965 - January 13, 1994
(Photo courtesy of The International Clown Hall of Fame)

Fourteen years have passed.

I get busy with life and stuff and only when I take the moment to stop and look do I see it. I dig through albums of photo's, looking for publicity pictures for the next gig. And then I see her. The memories are still very fresh, the pain just under the surface. We took everything for granted. Never think the end is near. The last thing I remember her saying to me in St. Pete on load out before the train run was to make me promise to watch her track gag in Orlando. Give her some new bits.

Then its over...

It was the defining moment for me...the one thing that changed everything forever. Nothing would ever be the same. The show, the clowns, my life. The whole thing about 'never growing up"...changed. We lost something. The show continued but it never quite felt the same. People were very kind, the show opened a day late in Orlando, and the routine began again. Props to be set, clown alley to be spotted. The dry cleaning came back and costumes were collected.

All but one.

That was the saddest moment out of ten years of touring.

To see her costume hanging by itself on a rack backstage... knowing.

The physical hurts healed, but the emotional ones linger. What happened that January morning made me a different person, I pray a better person.

I remember with a smile a pretty clown who loved to fall...
Greg DeSanto
January 13, 2008


Dear Ceslee,

I am not sure if you will receive this, as it is uncertain whether or not e-mail can reach all the way to heaven. But I'll try.

Things have changed, but probably not as much as you would think. Many of your friends are still on the Show, many have left, and many have decided that they didn't get quite enough of the life that we all so passionately love and have returned for more.

The Clowns on both shows are doing well. The Red Unit is hard at work in Winter Quarters on yet another incredible show, and the Blue Show Clowns are enjoying a rest before heading back out onto the Road. I assure you that they are up to the same old buffoonery in the Alley, and the No-Talent Talent Show and the Hot Dog Eating Contest continue to be highlights of both routes.

Technology has changed the Circus quite a bit. Most of the Clowns now have cellular phones, and I have to tell you, it is kind of strange to be in Clown Alley and hear a phone ringing! Also, Circus Management is on this computer network called the Internet, so any information regarding the Show is e-mailed to the Corporate Offices daily. Not a good idea to be late for the Show.

As you can imagine, most of the familiar things have not changed at all. Clowns still put off that makeup order, then scramble trying to find clown white. Early PR appointments still abound, and it is harder than ever to squeeze a few comps out of the Promoter. The frantic pace backstage minutes before opening night remains, and, of course, audiences around the country continue to be mesmerized by the splendor of The Greatest Show on Earth. That, dear friend, will never change.

My, how we miss you. I have seen your parents several times, and I know that they miss you more than you can possibly imagine. You name is spoken fondly, with laughter and tears, every single day. That as well, dear friend, will never change.

A few years ago I rode the Circus Train through that area of immense suffering in Lakeland. I wanted to avoid the trip altogether and drive, but I decided to take the train and find what I was seeking. Standing on the vestibule in the early morning fog, I recognized the location and returned to my room. Clutching the Bible that I have had for more than twenty years, I sat alone, overcome with emotion, in the privacy of my room as the train crawled through Lakeland. Then I found what I had so desperately needed for a long time; peace.

Gone, but not forgotten, you are loved. Rest well.

Your friend,

Joel Heidtman
December 6, 2000

(Photo courtesy of The International Clown Hall of Fame)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011