Piccadilly Circus crew help Joplin after tornado

June 8, 2011 at 1:08 a.m.

Jack Cook, a clown working with the Piccadilly Circus, was  in the Joplin, Mo., shortly after the tornado.  The facility where they were scheduled to perform became a temporary triage site for the victims.

Jack Cook, a clown working with the Piccadilly Circus, was in the Joplin, Mo., shortly after the tornado. The facility where they were scheduled to perform became a temporary triage site for the victims.

Jack Cook has made a career of making others laugh.

A professional circus clown for more than 50 years, the 60-year-old Cook almost daily tickles the funny bones of audiences with his tramp clown act and a 1923 Model T Ford.

But his ability to make others smile was put to the ultimate test when he volunteered to entertain the Joplin, Mo., tornado survivors, just a week after the storm.

"It's hard to imagine what they were feeling because the devastation was unbelievable," Cook said Wednesday while preparing for the circus' Victoria performance later that afternoon. "Hopefully, we helped them forget, for a few minutes, the disaster they just went through."

Scheduled to perform in Joplin on May 29, days after a lethal EF-5 tornado severely damaged about 75 percent of the city, Cook along with most of the 50-member Sarasota, Fla.-based Piccadilly Circus crew, opted to help with the cleanup effort rather than just move on to the next tour stop and enjoy a day off from work.

With an estimated death toll of 139, the Joplin tornado ranked as the deadliest single tornado in nearly 60 years, according to federal records.

"It was like tears of a clown were flowing out of my eyes when I went and saw the so-called war zone that they referred to because it was total devastation," Cook said. "The only thing you could do was respond emotionally because, never being around or seeing that kind of destruction from Mother Nature, was just unbelievable."

Because the arena where the circus was to be held was being used as a makeshift hospital, clowns and a handful of performers put on small shows outside of the arena and at makeshift tent shelters around the city, said Zack Garden, Piccadilly Circus General manager and third generation circus performer.

The crew also gave away more than 500 bags of cotton candy and balloons.

"There was one couple that we handed balloons and, come to find out, they had a 1-year-old baby who got taken in the storm," said Garden, 23. "That was one of the saddest things for me."

Following the performances, the entire circus staff took to the streets, providing manpower to cleanup crews in the 100-degree heat.

"I couldn't stop crying. I felt so bad. I couldn't believe all this happened in only a couple of seconds," said Zhen Yu, 27, a juggler with the circus. "I wanted to help."

Meanwhile, Alex Martinez, a daredevil motorcyclist with the circus, said he was inspired after meeting people, including two people from Dallas who had come from long distances just to assist with the cleanup .

"One guy told me he had quit his job just to come help," said Martinez.

The human members of the circus staff were not the only ones lending a helping hand.

After talking with homeowners, Garden said he and his crew learned insurance companies were refusing payouts to homeowners until their properties had been cleared.

So they brought in their elephants.

With the unleveled streets making it difficult for forklifts to maneuver to properties and tow trucks looming around vulnerable property owners like vultures, Garden decided to offer the services of his circus' elephants.

"Homeowners were having to pay out of their own pockets to clear their properties. I thought that was so wrong," said Garden. "I figured we have these elephants sitting here in a parking lot in Joplin. We could have them help move trees, cars and other debris."

The elephants that helped in Joplin are not the same ones that performed in Victoria.

Although the crew was unable to wow the community with their new circus acts, they hope others will be inspired to perform their own acts - acts of kindness that is.

"The people in Joplin need help and probably will for a long time," Cook said.



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