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Death of a clown
08 Sep 2008
Stephen Coan

Clown front page"Chuchin falls to death at Show" declared the front page headline of the then Natal Witness on the morning of Wednesday May 30, 1984. "Thousands of stunned spectators at the Royal Show yesterday saw Chuchin the Clown fall 25 metres to his death from the high wire in the main arena," read the report. It was a tragedy that entered the folklore of the city.

Now, 24 years later, Chuchin's son, has contacted the Witness in a bid to find out more about his father and his untimely death.

Chuchin, a 31 year-old Mexican high wire performer, was the star attraction of that year's Royal Show with his "breathtaking display of skill and acrobatics" that included "a heart-stopping bicycle ride across the wire ... with no safety nets."

Ironically it was not during his act that Chuchin fell but while preparing to descend after a performance. According to the Witness report "he started his routine descent which required that he place his foot in a looped rope hanging from a large hook, suspended from a crane. As he put his full weight on the rope, it slipped off the hook."

The inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death says Mark Shute, who was general manager of the Royal Agricultural Society at the time. Shute said it was a freak accident and that the spring-loaded clip "like that on a dog leash" had caught on the wire and opened so that the rope slipped out and Chuchin fell.

Attempts were made to resuscitate Chuchin by a doctor at the scene, Adrian Turner, and a Witness reporter and former nurse, Carol Thompson. They were briefly successful but Chuchin died later in hospital. A post-mortem recorded severe internal chest injuries, including a fractured breastbone and ruptured heart.

Chuchin had been featured in the Witness on two occasions prior to his fatal fall. On the previous Sunday he told the Witness "the day I'm not frightened is the day I die." The day before he fell the Witness published a photograph of the smiling clown handing a reward to a man who had accidentally walked off with his coat.

Clown coatChuchin's real name was Jose de Jesus Medrano and he told the Witness he had no fixed abode: "I go all places -- no house."

"Chuchin was a real charmer," recalls Shute. "Quite apart from his skills on the high wire he had an enormous appeal for kids. I will never forget the day he fell -- the doctor attending to him on the ground, the kids crowding round, a Witness photographer taking photographs. It was a bad day. Not the sort of thing you forget."

Chuchin was cremated and his ashes were sent to his family in Mexico. A memorial service was held on June 5 and the Witness report noted that "Chuchin leaves a widow and a 12 year-old son".

That son, Mizrraim Jesus Medrano, who now lives in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, in the United States, recently contacted the Witness in a bid to find out more about his father and the circumstances of his death.

Medrano has spent many years trying to find out about his father. He only managed to put most of the pieces together in 2005 when he visited his father's brothers and sisters in Guadalajara, Mexico.

This is his story:

My father left his childhood home when he was five and only contacted his family again when he was about 19. His mother was living with a man who forced him and his siblings to sell Chiclets chewing gum on the streets. The man sexually abused his sister and one day he witnessed his step-father hit his sister who fell to the ground and died from the impact. The man demanded everyone keep quiet about the matter and keep bringing money home.

A few days later my father was mugged by older kids who took the money he obtained selling gum on the streets and left him crying. He was afraid that if he returned home without any money he would be beaten and suffer the same fate as his sister. That night my father decided to leave and never return. He went to the railroad tracks and climbed onto the wagon of a slowly passing train. He fell asleep until he was woken up and told to get out of the wagon by a train guard. So at the age of about six or seven, hungry and without a home, he found himself in a place where he knew no one. When he walked into the village where he had been put off the train he saw a big circus tent with lights all over the place and lots of people waiting to enter and see the show. The circus was Bell's Circus, one of the biggest circuses in Mexico at the time.

My father got through the fence and asked the circus people for food. They fed him and in return got him to run errands, bring water and help clean up the circus. When it was time for the circus to leave town, my father wanted to leave with it. However the circus owner "Chonito" Asencion Bell and his sons thought this was a bad idea as they might be accused of being child-snatchers. The circus had a security guard who took care of the equipment at night. He had become fond of my father and agreed to my father’s request that he state he was my father’s uncle. So my father was allowed to remain in the circus.

Growing up in the circus my father soon noticed that the crowds greatly admired the high wire performer. However he knew the high wire performer would never allow a circus employee to practice on his equipment, let alone be taught how to use it. So, at night, would climb up on the high wire and practice in the dark. He paid the security guard to keep quiet about it. Though he fell several times luckily he never broke anything and pretty soon he was proficient on the high wire.

One night Jorge Bell, one of Chonito's sons, on his way back from a party entered the tent and observed my father walking on the wire in total darkness. He didn't say a word about it and my father didn't know his secret had been discovered.

Meanwhile the circus had a clown who wasn't very funny, plus he had a drinking problem. But he also happened to be the only person in the circus who was prepared to get close to the circus hippopotamus during intermission and feed it popcorn -- a gimmick designed to sell popcorn during the show. One night the clown got so drunk that no one could wake him up to feed the hippo so my father volunteered in his place. A few days later the clown was fired and my father remained as a clown.

Some time after this the performers were playing soccer in their spare time and the high wire performer got hurt. As a result he had to be taken off the programme. As he was the main attraction Chonito was both worried and angry at his irresponsible behaviour. Then my uncle Jorge recalled seeing my father do the act in total darkness. Only then did he mention it and my father was asked to fill in until the high wire performer recovered. My father agreed. Shortly afterwards the high wire man was fired and subsequently a family group of high wire walkers joined the show and my father was adopted into that family for a while and began performing on the high wire as a clown.

high wire clownMy father also had a talent for singing and Jorge had him record an album in Colombia. This saw my father become big in South America and Mexico.

My father married another circus performer Mayka Teresa Encarnacion Fernandez, Chonito Bell's daughter, who became my mother. She was a high wire performer and also used to train the elephants. Being the daughter of the circus owner she took my father to a higher level and he became a star performer.

He worked for the Bell family until the age of 19. After marrying my mother he performed for several other circuses including Circo Magico Italiano, Circo Peralvar’s (King Kong’s circus), Circo Hnos Vazquez, USA Dallas Dates and Circo Atayde.

As well as Mexico he performed in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela (that’s where I was born but my mother and father registered me in Mexico), United States, Canada, and finally South Africa.

At the time he came to South Africa my parents were separated. I was told that before he left for South Africa he said he loved me and my mother very much and that he missed us dearly, but that he couldn’t do anything to make things right again with my mother. Others have told me they heard him say that he had leukemia, I wonder if the doctors who made the autopsy could be able to tell me if he had such condition at the time of his death?

At one point my father had taken me away from mother and secretly hidden me with my father’s aunt. I studied at a very nice fee-paying school. My mother hired a private detective to find me and she took me back. I used to speak with my father every Saturday. One Saturday however I received a call from my father’s sister instead, telling me to leave with my mother. I did, afterwards I imagined that my father was mad at me for leaving with my mother. I never spoke to him after that. My mother spoke to him several times and asked me if I wanted to speak with him, but I declined for fear of being scolded about leaving. My mother told me that my father had gotten a contract to perform in South Africa and asked me if I wanted to go see him at the fair where he was playing. I declined, fearing that he might hit me when he saw me. I learned that my father grew very disappointed about me.

My father still had to fulfil his contract with the fair but doing so would not allow him to take on the South African contract to perform at the Royal Show. He secretly hired a trucker to pretend to accidentally hit his high wire prop which would cause the fair to release him from fulfilling his contract since he would not be able to perform safely. He got released from his contract and Salvador Murillo, his agent living in the U.S. at the time, sent him the contract for South Africa.

My mother left the circus for a while but when my father died I and my mother were living at Circo Bell’s. She had decided to return to the circus life about two years prior to my father’s death. I worked selling concessions, helping set up and take down the tent and at the age of 9 I had become a full-time clown.

medranoIt wasn’t really my choice to become a clown. When my mother decided to go back to the circus I didn’t have a daring skill. I wasn't able to do flips on the trampoline or acrobatics on the ground, let alone walk on the high wire or fly on the trapeze. So I had to become a clown. When my uncles decided to train me in the daring circus skills my mother declined so I never learned them. Although I did fly as a clown on the trapeze.

My mother remarried a year after my father’s death. Today she lives in the United States and her name is Mayka Artiello. We had moved to the U.S. after my father's death and we eventually got residency. My mother went there because my father's agent had withheld the money that was owing to my father and kept his jewellery. Eventually she ran out of money and couldn't afford a lawyer. She saw an advertisement in the newspaper wanting clowns with or without experience. She took me there because we needed the money. The pay was $35.00 an hour and I would do about four one-hour shows a week to earn $150.00. I went to college for a business degree and finally decided to get my BA degree in Communications Theatre. Being a clown sort of stuck with me. I remember my father telling me once. "Please never become a clown. People will readily make the comparison between you and I, and frankly I think it will be very hard to fill my shoes". For obvious reasons I decided to never try and fill his shoes with relation to his daring acts.

I began touring with the John Winn circus in the U.S. when I was 14. Since the age of 13 I had been performing at birthday parties and events such as the 5 de Mayo Fest and other events in California and Texas. My father had wanted me to have an education so I had it in my head that I should get a degree in something. My mother didn’t have enough money to pay for college and at the time the U.S. military had an advertising campaign about helping fund college studies so I joined the U.S. Navy, finished my degree, and in the meantime travelled to Germany to perform at the Naught Show, I traveled to Japan with the Mitsui Greenland Super Hero show and went to the Bahamas with the Circus of the Stars. I toured Canada with the Cirque Estival, and the U.S. with several different circuses including Valentine, Hanneford, James Plunkett, Jody Jordan and Chewy Goffer’s.

As a clown I am known as "Chuchin the Clown", the same name as my father. Chuchin is not a traditional clown name, it's a nickname that people use to call those with a name like Jesus (my middle name), just like people named Francisco are called Pancho. My father would ask the ring master to announce him as Jose de Jesus Medrano Chuchin. My father had been the only Chuchin the Clown in Mexico but he became a huge name and after he died many clowns decided to take up his name. I decided to use it just because he was my father, not for reasons of fame because by the time I became a full time clown again, I was already living in the U.S. and no one really knew who Chuchin was there. So I thought, why not leave a mark with the name my father left.

For many years I had been trying to find out more about my father and his death. Everything about his death was very vague. We never heard from his agent.

I wish that the people who met him or were at the show the day he died, or if someone has a video of his performance at the Royal Show would share that with me. My father was big in Mexico and stories about his death were really blown up out of all proportion. It was said my father was doing his wire act from helicopter to helicopter! Then it was said that it was from crane to crane. I wanted to learn English just to know what the newspaper that shows my father lying on the ground said. And also, to one day be able to communicate with the people of South Africa to ask all the questions and possibly find out things that I don't know about him because I wasn’t in South Africa with him when he died.

I don't have many memories of him and that’s probably the reason I want to know more. My mother stayed at home, I was at school while my father toured with shows throughout Mexico. I saw him very little, when I was with him I noticed he gave lots of love to the children who bought his records. He would sign them and kiss them on the cheek. Once I bought one of his records and took it to him for his signature and to receive a kiss. When I told him he smiled and I saw a tear come out of one of his eyes.

* Check the website: www.chuchin.net

 * Do you remember Chuchin the Clown? Do you have any photographs of him when he appeared at the Royal Show? If you do or have any other information about him please e-mail Stephen Coan at feature1@witness.co.za or phone 033 355 1111. It will be passed onto his son.

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