Amid the telltale smell of sawdust, greasepaint and, uh, elephant, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performer Laura May Petrello stood by Charlton Heston’s side and gazed sweetly up at him. The actor, barechested and buff, smiled back.
Given that Heston was playing a circus character based on Petrello’s beloved husband, Mike, and that Petrello was basically playing herself, the pose came naturally to the young aerialist, tumbler and all-around circus performer.
Petrello died in her adopted Miami home on June 17 at 89, but she left the way she lived.
“The circus was her life, and she loved that life,” said friend Lizabeth Doebler who, along with her Palmetto Bay family, helped care for Petrello during her final act.
“She said at her funeral that she didn’t want anybody crying. She said, ‘Life is like a circus. You wait for the next act. You’re bored. You’re excited. There’s laughing. There’s crying. There’s fear. There’s smiling.’
“She said, ‘It’s fun and sometimes not so much fun.’ She wanted people to have candy apples and cotton candy and Cracker Jack and popcorn at her funeral,” Doebler said. She had one more request, too: “ ‘And, by the way, I want a clown.’ ”
And so it went Tuesday when the Stanfill Funeral Home in Pinecrest took on the aura of the Big Top that Petrello had loved so much.
Petrello was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. Show business was never a stranger. Comedian Red Skelton was a next-door neighbor and, by age 3, she was already tumbling.
By 18, during World War II, Petrello joined Ringling Bros. — “the only circus,” she would say — and worked on the wires, inside the three rings and alongside the clowns.
Families and famous folk alike checked out her act: She performed for George VI, the duke of Windsor. Gustaf V, the king of Sweden, at Madison Square Garden in 1947. Singer-actor Frank Sinatra and his children. Comedian Bob Hope.
Circus performer Emmett Kelly, her Ringling Bros. colleague who created the famed Weary Willie clown persona, was a close pal until his death in 1979 at age 80 in Sarasota.
When producer-director Cecil B. DeMille wanted to tell a circus story in his 1952 film, The Greatest Show on Earth, he cast Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s 1951 troupe, of which Petrello was a featured act, among the film’s stars, Heston, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde. Petrello is seen riding horses and swinging on the trapeze.
Heston played a circus general manager who has to tell his girlfriend, a flier, that she was out of the center ring due to a budget crunch.
Real life? Petrello’s husband, a member of the troupe, received a credit in the film’s end titles. She did not.
“That was her joke. ‘I did all the work but he got the credit,’ ” Doebler said.
The couple lived on the road but bought a home in Miami before Petrello retired from the circus in 1962. In 1970, Mike Petrello died.
Petrello was a 40-year member of the fraternal charitable organization Nahum Temple Daughters of the Nile, which is composed of wives of Mahi Shriners and Masons. She met Doebler at an event in 2008.
But the friends almost met during the late 1950s at a Ringling Bros. show at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Doebler was at her first circus when Petrello fell during her act. She landed on the net, but a pole gave way and she hit the ground. Dazed, she wandered out of the arena, using the wrong exit, and bumped into a kind man who offered her a soda and held her head as she got sick in a trash can.
The man was Doebler’s father. His daughter never liked the circus much after seeing that incident.
Many decades later, when the friends first met, “She looked at me like I had three heads,” Doebler said. “She said, ‘Why on earth wouldn’t you like the circus?’ ”
Doebler told her of the frightening accident she had witnessed as a little girl. Petrello told her about the man who gave her a soda and support. The two laughed.
“She had no children, but she loved children and we were her adopted family,” Doebler said. “When she came to live with us we had three dogs and five children, and she loved it. Our house in itself was a three-ring circus, so she felt at home.”