PHOTO: Parents and children react as circus ring master Ted McRae handles a large python during Wednesday's free performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the BancorpSouth Center parking lot. (C. Todd Sherman)
BY M. SCOTT MORRIS
TUPELO – There's a good reason the BancorpSouth Center smells like elephants.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus' Hometown Edition has pulled into Tupelo for four days of shows that begin today.
A few hundred people gathered in the arena's parking lot at noon Wednesday to sample some of the fun that was to come.
“Are you ready for the circus? My name is Ted McRae. I am your ringmaster,” said a man in a sparkling white and gold shirt with black pants and riding boots. “We have a few surprises for you. Is there anyone who doesn't like surprises?”
He walked to a wicker basket and casually opened the top. A few seconds later, the audience “ooohed” and “eeked” its surprise when an albino Burmese Python stuck its nose over the side of the woven container.
It seemed like a perfect opportunity for Alyssa Dees, 3, who was sitting on the shoulders of her uncle, Danny Dees, 19.
“I want to touch the snake,” Alyssa said.
Her grandmother, Debi Dees, didn't care for the idea at the time.
“No,” she said. “No snakes.”
Later, after the snake had been put back into its basket and carried off stage, Debi Dees seemed to relent.
“We just got our tickets to the circus,” she said, “so maybe she'll get a chance to touch the snake after all.”
Wearing a tank top and a goatee, Herkules the strongman for “The Greatest Show on Earth” stepped on stage to show off his muscles and test the strength of Northeast Mississippi's young people.
McRae invited two kids to grab a spring on one side and another pair to grab the other side. The kids pulled and strained, but made no change to the spring.
Herkules easily stretched it and got a round of applause for his effort.
“That's 500 pounds of force,” the ringmaster said.
Next, more than 20 youngsters played tug-of-war with Herkules.
Guess who won?
Clown Tom Dougherty wore a red derby hat over a thick, black thatch of hair, but the hat and the hair kept hitting the stage floor.
“Very natural,” the guy with the red nose said of his hair.
He invited Victoria Pollock, 6, of Mantachie to the stage.
When his hat fell, she picked it up.
When his umbrella fell, she picked it up.
When his glove fell, she picked it up.
It went on like that, and Victoria smiled through it all. For her effort, she won a round of applause almost as loud as Dougherty got when he juggled the umbrella, hat and glove.
Angel Spencer, 9, of Marietta experienced her own wave of approval from the crowd when Dougherty helped her spin a plate holding a fake cream pie on the top of the umbrella.
As McRae said, “Kids rule at the circus.”
Up close, personal
Roddy Broadaway, 39, of Tupelo wore a clown nose while his 5-year-old son, Harrison, sat on his shoulders to watch the show.
“Harrison was wearing it for a while,” Broadaway said, “then he decided it looked better on me. I'm going to wear it back to work.”
After the sneak peek at the circus concluded, Dougherty sat in the air conditioning with elephants just a few feet behind him and explained the beauty of the circus.
“Different members of your family might like different things, but it all comes from the same place: the circus,” he said. “After the show, you're talking to your kids about a shared experience. That's important.”
A clown for 27 years, Dougherty said the Hometown Edition allows the audience to get close to the performers because there's only one ring.
“For us as performers, it's all about making the connection with the audience,” he said, “so we love it.”
He said the ringmaster and host will invite people to take part in the show for different acts.
Folks also are invited to arrive an hour before show time to meet the clowns, trainers, trapeze artists and other performers.
“We'll do things that we don't do during the show. It's a chance to shake hands and get autographs,” Dougherty said. “It's our way of saying Welcome to our house. You're going to have a good time.'”
Contact M. Scott Morris at 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org