December 18, 1998
THE OLD cliche of the broken-hearted clown became reality for Pio Nock in May when his wife of 50 years, Alexandra, died. But the show went on, and, even at the age of 77, Nock remained a star, and continued to perform.
He died performing before a packed audience at a winter circus in Dortmund, Germany. Towards the end of his number, he fell from his chair into the sawdust and was taken to hospital, where the doctors were unable to resuscitate him. Even as they tried to do so, his granddaughter Nina Cortes continued the performance, hiding her own emotions as she carried out a high-wire act her grandfather had taught her. It was the opening night of the Christmas season and the public could not be disappointed.
Nock came from Switzerland, a country that has created many of the finest clowns, including the Chickys, Pic, Dimitri, Andreff, Emil Steinberger, the cabarettist who made a sensational transition into the circus ring, and the television stars Duo Fischbach, as well as the greatest clown of all, Grock (Adrien Wettach, 1880-1959), who retired from the ring at the age of 74. Nock, however, could not bring himself to retire from the life into which he was born.
Pio Nock could trace his circus heritage back to 1770, when the dynasty was founded by Jakob Nock. Pio was born into the sixth generation, in Berne in 1921, the second son of Julio Pius and Amanda Nock. His brothers and sisters, Charles, Anneliese, Edith, Lotti, Erika, Eugen and Elizabeth, all became circus performers. Eugen, Charles and Elizabeth starred in London in 1953 at Tom Arnold's Harringay Arena Circus with their death- defying exploits at the top of three 70ft-high swaying poles, before going to America, where they established new branches of the Nock family.
The basis of the Nock dynasty's performing artistry lay in their early exploits as itinerant highwire walkers. They gave al fresco open-air displays in the streets and market places of Switzerland, and the tradition of Nock wire-walkers has persisted to the present. As soon as Pio could walk, he began his training. In 1929, his mother and father founded their own travelling show, Arena Pius Nock, which gave open-air performances, in which all the children eventually took part. Pio's grandmother, Alexandra Josefina Strohschneider was still dancing on the high wire at the age of 74.
In 1946, in Lucerne, Nock married Alexandra Buhlmann, a member of another Swiss circus family, and as Pio's youngest sister Erika married Alexandra's brother Moritz Buhlmann, it was natural for Nock to graduate to the Buhlmanns' family show, Circus Pilatus. Moritz Buhlmann was the family daredevil performer, the projectile in the human cannonball act and the show's lion trainer. It was not long before Nock and Buhlmann had devised a new thrill act, with Nock clowning on the high wire while below him sat seven hungry lions waiting for their prey to fall into the cage. His surefootedness, despite his crazy antics, ensured that he never became part of their diet.
In 1948, in addition to training horses and ponies, Nock turned his talents to clowning full-time, creating a lovable character who was at first partnered by the white-face clown Angelo and then by Max van Embden, Grock's former partner. He created a classical slapstick and musical clowning act which stood the test of time, and which he performed around the world for 50 years.
After the Circus Pilatus closed, Nock and his growing family travelled extensively with leading circuses in Portugal, Spain and France, to Israel and Turkey, Holland, Germany and many other countries, topping the bill wherever he went.
For the Christmas season of 1960/61, he came to England for the first time, appearing in the King's Hall, Manchester, with the Belle Vue International Circus in the clown act and, with his wife, in the comedy highwire number performed above Buhlmann's lions.
Later he took his son-in-law, Mario Cortes, as his white-face clown and faire-valoir, and members of his family joined him in the highwire act, in which he appeared above the swimming pool in Bournemouth at George Baines's Aqua Show. Three generations of Nocks appeared in Mary Chipperfield's Circus at Pleasureland, Southport, for the summer season of 1989, Pio Nock's last appearance in England.
In the 1960s Nock worked in Germany with the Circus Paula Busch and went on to join Germany's huge Circus Franz Althoff. He played a major role in the epic American circus film, The Magnificent Showman, or Circus World as it was known outside Britain. Made by Samuel Bronston in 1964, it starred John Wayne, Claudia Cardinale, Rita Hayworth and Lloyd Nolan, with Nock and Max van Embden in their clown acts.
Nock continued to enjoy enormous success in his native land, and was featured by the renowned Swiss National Circus Knie on several occasions. He was in their special programme for Expo 64 in Lausanne and again in Knie's own 50th jubilee programme in 1968.
He appeared in America for seven years with "The Greatest Show on Earth", the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. During this time, Nock sustained a fall from 10 metres up on the wire. He fell directly into the wild animal cage containing a dozen or more fierce lions and lionesses and it was only thanks to the quick actions of the trainer Wolfgang Holzmair, who herded them swiftly out of the cage and back to their living quarters, that his life was saved. Although he established a second home in Sarasota, Florida, close to the winter home of the Ringling show, he never appeared in America again.
He returned to Knie for the 1976 season and was subsequently invited back in 1978 for Knie's 60th jubilee celebrations, and yet again in 1994 for its 75th anniversary.
Pius "Pio" Nock, clown and high-wire performer: born Berne, Switzerland 10 November 1921; married 1946 Alexandra Buhl-mann (died 1998; two sons, one daughter); died Dortmund, Germany 4 December 1998.
For video of Mr. Nock at Circus Knie in 1964, please click here.