An old joke tells of the young circus performer who devastated his family by running away to college. Jack Ryan, Millsaps College Class of 1961, did it the old way.
After Millsaps, the Army, time at Gordon Marks Advertising in Jackson, and two years as a New York publicist, Ryan astonished friends and faculty members by running away with the circus. And not just any circus, the king three-ringer of them all: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, "The Greatest Show on Earth."
Had you paid attention to the young Jack Ryan growing up in Summit, Miss., you might have spotted the danger signs. Like entertainers Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson (who attended Millsaps for V-12 officer training), Ryan was a boy magician. Moreover, his father, an architect, was a die-hard circus fan. Frequent excursions to circuses all over the South instilled in Ryan a deep affection for the sawdust and stardust of the circus world.
"We would get up at 3 a.m. and be in New Orleans by dawn to watch Ringling Brothers put up the big canvas tent," said Ryan. "Then we would have a picnic lunch, go to the matinee performance, and head back to Summit. It was great fun because there was nothing going on in Summit. Our only entertainment attraction was Mary Cain (the late controversial editor of The Summit Sun)."
Ryan graduated from Summit High School in June 1957, and that September entered Millsaps, where he began to learn of a world beyond Mississippi. He remembers with special warmth Millsaps Players director Lance Goss, "who taught me about the magic of theater as art reflecting life," and George Boyd, head of the English Department, who "had a profound influence on my life." The list went on.
"Dr. Milton Christian White, Dr. Ross Moore - these men shaped my life and how I think. Ms. Marguerite Goodman taught me any grammar skills I may have - you didn't learn to be a grammarian at Summit High School. And, of course, Ms. (Eudora) Welty, who came and talked to us many times on campus, plus the nights she read her work while we sat on the floor at someone's house. Magnolia Coullet, who gave me not only Latin heritage but a dear friend in her son, Tink."
At Millsaps, Ryan joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, made good grades despite a heavy schedule with the Millsaps Players, and was named to Omicron Delta Kappa his senior year. In 1965, Ryan found work in Manhattan as a publicist with Look magazine. He worked with a tall blonde man who kept a novel-in-progress in a desk drawer.
The novel was Catch 22, and the other publicist was Joseph Heller. Ryan viewed the Look position as a step toward his heart's ambition: work as a publicist for Broadway shows. It turned out to be just that. By 1967 he was working for Solters & Sabinson, a legendary Broadway publicity firm. Lee Solters, on whom the Tony Curtis role in Sweet Smell of Success was reputedly based, would become a pivotal influence in Jack's professional life.
At Solters & Sabinson, Ryan worked with such diverse entertainers as Benny Goodman, Diahann Carroll, Florence Henderson, Paul Anka, Carol Channing, Bobby Short, Duke Ellington, Lotte Lenya, Neil Simon, and others. It was Broadway, and it was the big time. "Did I love it? You betcha."
Then, right out of the bleacher seats, Solters & Sabinson got the Ringling Brothers account. A friend of Lee Solters's, Irvin Feld, had bought the circus with Judge Roy Hofheinz of Astrodome fame. Feld hired Solters to arrange an announcement press conference in Rome - at the Coliseum. By the time Solters returned to Manhattan, his in basket held a carefully worded memo from Jack Ryan. Solters learned that he already had a circus expert on staff. The "circus expert" appellation was accurate. Ryan was an expert and had often appeared in that capacity on "The Long John Nebel Show," a night-time talkradio staple on WNBC.
He got the Ringling Brothers assignment, and within hours was in Venice, Fla., being shown through the winter quarters of the circus by Harold Ronk, the regal ringmaster who opened every performance with the unforgettable intonation, "Children of all ages ... ""
Thus began six years as the lead publicist for Ringling Brothers. One of Irvin Feld's first moves was to form two Ringling Brothers shows that would travel the country, which meant that Ryan's work effectively doubled. Among his many assignments were the circus programs, which had traditionally ended with a letter from the owner, closing with, "Thank you and au revoir, John Ringling North." A new owner required a new sign-off, which became, "May All Your Days Be Circus Days."
"That line is my contribution to circus lore," said Ryan, adding, "People even put it on tombstones." At a recent circus benefit in Sarasota, Fla., Ryan was introduced as the man who wrote the "circus days" line - to loud and long applause.
The circus years, six as a full-time publicist and another 20 or so as a consultant and freelancer, defined Ryan's professional life. "The two most influential men in my professional life were Lee Solters and Irvin Feld. Both were pros, and both could be difficult. But they didn't become legends for nothing. It was especially rewarding to work at Irvin's right hand, to watch a visionary entrepreneur up close. Not because I was so valuable to him, but because of the nature of my job. I had to know everything that was going on."
Ryan counts as a career high point being the press agent for Gunther Gebel-Williams, an astonishingly talented animal trainer who, using only voice commands, could control a cage filled with big cats or elephants. "When Gunther showed up, I knew he was the future of the circus," Ryan said. "And in just a few years, 'Gunther' was an answer in The New York Times crossword, so I guess I did my job."
Ryan could also execute press-agent stunts. Witness the year the circus moved its New York venue from the old Madison Square Garden at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street to the new Garden at Seventh and 33rd. The parade left Central Park on 67th Street and headed south on Columbus Avenue, led by a female elephant named Siam. At 50th Street, it unaccountably halted.
Ryan ran to the front of the parade to investigate. The elephant trainer said, "She remembers that she always turned left here. For the old Garden." The parade had been stopped by an elephant that didn't forget. Or had it? It transpired that Ryan had engineered the pause at 50th Street, and the New York media fell for the ploy hook, line, and trunk. "The elephant that didn't forget" became an overnight sensation.
Verging on burnout, Ryan left the circus to accept a lucrative offer from Magic Mountain, a California amusement park, but he continued to do special assignments for Ringling Brothers. In 1979, he became a full-time freelancer, with the circus as his number one client. He continued to write programs as well as complete show scripts for Ringling Brothers.
In 1986, Ryan began teaching public relations theory and writing at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. A full-time adjunct professor, he retired in 2003 but continued to freelance and to present his seminar, "The Art & Craft of Public Relations Writing," all over the country - including an appearance at Millsaps.
Ryan moved to Pensacola, Fla., in 2004, and he continues to write for a number of clients including the non-profit Circus Sarasota. Asked for thoughts on his career in public relations and the circus, Ryan mentioned a book written by Francis Beverly Kelley, who preceded Jack as a Ringling publicist.
"It sums things up perfectly," he said, "Bev's title was 'It Was Better Than Work.'"