Sunday, January 13, 2008

CESLEE CONKLING: December 6, 1965 - January 13, 1994

December 6, 1965 - January 13, 1994

A Graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College Class of 1991, Ceslee was a clown on the Blue Unit from 1992-1994. Loved by everyone, she died tragically when the Blue Unit circus train derailed outside of Lakeland, Florida on the morning of January 13, 1994. Always helpful and concerned for her friends, Ceslee was killed enroute through the train to alert everyone of a broken wheel on the Clown Car. Always helpful, always concerned; that was our Ceslee.

~ Joel Heidtman

Photos and comments courtesy of Greg DeSanto

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...


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

For the New York Times account of the events of January 13, 1994, please click the title of this post.


Anonymous said...

Joel and Greg,
Thank you so much for the fond memories of Ceslee. She was indeed a wonderful, unforgettable individual.
How does time fly? So ever, ever fast, I realized last month, as I listened to my son Eric and Justin, now grown men, discuss the "best of the best" world famous, without guestion, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown Alley Hot Dog Eating Contest and Nuremburg Night´s.
I don´t know if I can ever do it enough, but I would like to personally thank each and every member of GSOE Clown alley for the incredible, wonderful, memories.
Wade Burck

Anonymous said...

In 1988, my 3-year old daughter and I joined the Cowtown Clown Alley in Fort Worth, Texas. It was there that we met and became friends with another Mother-Daughter team -- Bonnie and Ceslee Conkling. We were thrilled (though not at all surprised) when Ceslee went off to Clown College. We were ecstatic (though not at all surprised) when Ceslee joined the circus. Seeing her in the ring was the most incredible circus experience of our lives.

Then came that fateful January day in 1994... I received a call at work from Edna Flanagan, aka Crackers the Clown. She told me the circus train had derailed and it was still unconfirmed but was rumored that Ceslee had been killed. A little later in the day, the confirmation came, and fourteen years have failed to dull the sense of loss I still feel whenever I think of her. Ceslee was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Beautiful, talented, cute, kind, funny, generous, loving, sweet, caring, giving... there simply are not enough positive adjectives in the English language to describe her.

Thank you for a wonderful website dedicated to keeping her memory alive.

Mary Jones
aka Cleo the Clown
Fort Worth, TX

Anonymous said...

Any chance of you reposting the bakery gag where she takes her famous fall?? its sad that youtube deleted it.. and gregs you wanna be a clown eh? i loved watching those.