Doctor makes house calls to the Big Top
by Carrie Steele
Under overcast skies, the circus ticket window was dark. No one was selling popcorn, and the grounds were deserted save for two ice deliverymen, two elephant caretakers and Dr. Richard Hochman.
The Annapolis physician calls on the Cole Brothers Circus each year on its annual visit to Annapolis, one of the 120 stops this circus makes before returning home to Deland, Florida.
Internist Hochman who also moonlights as a jazz pianist and leader of Dr. Hochman’s Dynamic Dixieland Band is an insider to the annual circus. During its 36-hour stop-over, he’s on call for sickness, injuries, infections or whatever ailments befall the performers and circus staff. No, he doesn’t treat the animals.
At Navy Marine Corps Stadium parking lot, the bright yellow tent looms above a tiny town of RVs, animal trailers with their tenants grazing nearby and the 18-wheeler trailer that holds the circus office.
I joined Dr. Hochman on his morning rounds.
The Doctor’s In
Hochman’s the only physician along the Cole Brothers’ nine-month travels they can count on to treat their ills and ailments.
“People save up their problems for when they stop by Annapolis,” Hochman says, because circus people don’t have time to schedule a doctor’s appointment on the road.
Some 130 people travel with Cole Brothers, plus another 25 or 30 who travel ahead to set up. Their village journeys from town to town every day or every other day from March through November, with three winter months off. Because of the East Coast route, their nickname is the I-95 Circus, says circus owner John Pugh, who says that Annapolis is his favorite stop because he enjoys going downtown.
Last week before the opening performance in Annapolis, Hochman sent a publicist who had an infected abscess to the hospital.
Hochman, whose day job keeps him in rounds at Anne Arundel Medical Center, revels in his once-a-year job.
He’s been the first one on the scene for broken bones, sudden sicknesses and unexpected conditions. He had to climb a circus ladder with medical bag and his own frightened grandchild in one arm up above the tiger cages to tend to a vertigo-plagued performer stuck at the top of the big tent.
His cases are unique to the circus.
“One woman said she had a headache. I asked what she did, and she said, ‘I swing by my hair, then I start having headaches,’” he remembers. “I told her, ‘Get another act.’”
The contortionist who balanced on one finger came to Dr. Hochman with an in-grown fingernail.
“During the show that night, I knew the Novicane had worn off. I could see he was getting very sweaty, balancing himself on two balls and one leg of a chair,” he says. The performer passed out just after the performance.
“I really admire these people. They don’t complain, they just do it,” Hochman says.
Hochman sometimes navigates large mammals, to get to his patients.
As he once neared the elephant keeper’s trailer, “one of the elephants put her trunk on my shoulder,” says Hochman, who was terrified. “I thought she’d just pick me up and throw me away. But they told me ‘blow into her trunk.’ I guess she likes the sensation. She can play the harmonica, you know.”
Joining the Circus
On this overcast morning, we enter a big top, eerily dark and empty, devoid of crowds and performers. Stepping inside, he says that being at the circus and around circus people makes him feel young. He’s been going since he was a child growing up in New York City.
“My father took me to the Ringling Brothers. You could buy a chameleon in a box,” he says, “The only year I didn’t go to the circus was when I was overseas for the Korean War.”
Childhood dreams of the circus still make him smile.
“Ringling Brothers used to have a band. I used to want to run away with the circus band,” he says.
He began making calls to the circus sometime in the 1960s, when he treated a member of the Annapolis Optimist Club that brought the circus to town.
Over a lifetime of circuses, he’s noticed more than a few changes. The circus used to have a bigger tent, he says, with three rings, not just one big one. The circus used to travel by train, not on the road.
There used to be some dozen elephants in the show. Now Cole Brothers has just two. That’s due to a new law that prohibits importing elephants.
Rising costs have made it harder for the circus to be the production it once was.
“It’s becoming a tough business,” says Pugh. But he’ll keep going. “Every day I’m here [with the circus],” he says, “is like being in Vegas.”
A Cannon Call
Dr. Hochman always sits in the front row at the circus so he can be the first one on the scene if anything should happen and because he sits in the front row wherever he goes.
He admits to worrying about the performers during the dangerous stunts.
In the empty ring on this pre-circus morning, the wheel of death hangs silently. It’s death-defying work, along with the cannon.
“I’m the only doctor to do a cannon call,” he jokes. Behind the humor is dangerous reality.
Cole Brothers’ director, Elvin Bayle, grew up in the circus and has traveled the world all his life. He’s performed for the Pope at the Vatican. One of his later performances was being shot out of the cannon until a show accident in Hong Kong left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Now Bayle is a manager, not a performer, and one of the circus members that Hochman most looks forward to seeing each year.
Bayle’s cheerful charisma, stories from traveling around the world and life with the circus help the doctor to feel at home in the still, calm circus grounds.
Hochman remembers Clyde Beatty, one of the legendary animal trainers, who insisted on appearing with the big cats during the final days of his life.
“He was so weak then, he couldn’t even crack the whip or lift the chair. All the tigers were sitting on their platforms,” Hochman remembers. Beatty had to be carried off, and Hochman treated him.
Year in and year out, the doctor haunts the circus grounds for the hours it comes to town, captured in its spell.
“There is,” he says, “a magic about the circus.”