- February 12, 2022
There are two kinds of entertainers in show business: those who play the part and those who are the part. Bello Nock belongs in the second camp.
For decades, the dauntless daredevil has risked life, limb and exceptional hairspray hold in his quest to pull off record-setting aerial feats for the adoring masses. He does this, of course, while masquerading as a hapless clown in an ill-fitting tuxedo with a stiff, foot-high stalk of strawberry blond hair teased straight up in the air.
At 54, Nock should be tired and sore. He should be kicking back in a comfortable chair at the foot of his pond, watching the sunset over his 16-acre East Sarasota “Funny Farm.” He should be regaling his granddaughter with circus stories from days of yore, as grandpas tend to do.
But kicking back isn’t Nock’s thing.
Nock would much prefer getting launched out of a cannon.
“Unless it’s under strict orders from a doctor, you won’t see me giving this up anytime soon,” Nock says. “I was a dyslexic, redheaded, bucktoothed, pigeon-toed klutz as a kid, bullied and never picked first for a team. I had ADHD before the world even knew what that was. I learned how to thrive in environments where I felt like a fish out of water. Once you learn how to do that, you never lose your sense of passion and persistence. It stays with you.”
A seventh-generation aerial stunt artist, the daredevil clown is as effervescent today as he was when he kicked off Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ “Bellobration” tour 15 years ago. The tour — the first and only time Ringling ever named a production after one of its performers—cemented Nock’s place in daredevil history, serving as an inspiration to misfits with big dreams.
Nock, a Sarasota native born to Aurelia and Eugene Nock Sr., a Ringling power couple who met while starring in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” did exactly what he said he’d do when teachers at Tuttle Elementary School scolded him for goofing off in class. He became a famous clown.
In fact, he became so famous that Time magazine named him “America’s Best Clown.”
And therein lies the paradox of Nock’s daredevil clown persona. Under the makeup, hair and stumbling shtick, the performer is a modern-day version of Evel Knievel, but with fewer broken bones and more Guinness World Records. Although he long ago earned his circus stripes, he’s still hustling like a kid who’s got something to prove.
Jennifer Nock, the performer’s wife and manager of 35 years, says the secret to Nock’s success comes down to this one expression: a body in motion stays in motion.
“He doesn’t believe anything is impossible,” Jennifer says. “I’ve seen him wear out two 25-year-olds running in the Wheel of Death. To other people it looks like he’s leading this exciting, crazy life, but to Bello it’s just his normal life.”
Nock’s “normal” life makes other clowns look like bargain basement mascots. The daredevil’s stunt reel is almost too long to list and includes such acts as riding an elephant through New York City’s Midtown Tunnel, hanging by his toes from the bottom of a helicopter flying over the Statue of Liberty, repelling off Madison Square Garden and walking for 429 feet on a high wire above a cruise ship in the Bahamas, for which he earned the Guinness World Record for Longest Tightrope Walk Unsupported.
“To me he’s far exceeded what any clown has ever done,” Jennifer says. “He truly does live in the now.”
Nock fell in love with Jennifer in third grade and by 18 they were married.
The union flummoxed Nock’s parents. Like most circus kids, Nock was expected to grow up and marry another circus kid. But Jennifer — a sensible introvert whose parents ran a recycling garage in Wisconsin Dells, where the Nocks performed in a waterski show each summer — came from more pedestrian roots.
“Had he married another performer I think there would have been competing egos and agendas,” Jennifer says. “I prefer to give him the spotlight.”
Except that the spotlight shifted when the pandemic hit, forcing the Nock to do the unthinkable: slow down.
With live entertainment put on hold, the Nocks began brainstorming ways to reach the local community. Spurred by the recent growth of Lakewood Ranch into Sarasota County, they decided to allocate space (and time) to hosting events on their sprawling compound — a gated wonderland of circus milieu, complete with aerial rigs, stunt apparatuses, daredevil contraptions, old Ringling train cars and a lake large enough for a Jet Ski show.
In 2020, they created “Bello Nock’s Adventure Center” and began offering family-friendly stunt spectacles to the public. Both born-again Christians, the couple also transformed the inside of their biggest storage building — a pole barn-type warehouse that once functioned as Nock’s personal hall of fame — into a gathering place for monthly prayer groups.
“I’d really like to build a circus arts school,” Nock says. “But something more immersive than just a school, something more like a vocational program that gives students hands-on experience learning to do the things no one shines a spotlight on.”
The student with the most Nock training under her belt is perhaps 26-year-old “dare daughter” Annaliese, a powerhouse of a stuntwoman who holds the Guinness World Record for the most somersaults on a Wheel of Death in one minute. (Over the last three years, the father-daughter duo appeared together on “Britain’s Got Talent” and “America’s Got Talent.”)
“Annaliese is totally fearless,” Nock says. “For a woman in this business to be doing what she’s doing at her age … she’s pretty unstoppable.”
All of these inevitable winds of change have made Nock decidedly more introspective. Daredevilry is a young person’s game, and he’s been thinking a lot about his legacy.
“I could rattle off all the accolades—and there are great accolades, but I’ve gotten to an age where it’s not about that anymore,” he says. “That’s an ego-driven out to please an audience of one. It hit me recently how much I was called upon to mentor young people because sometimes the impact you have on one person is more valuable than the impact you have on a million.”
His current protégé — 22-year-old Channing Gross, a Sailor Circus Academy alum — is currently performing in Howl-O-Scream at Sea World in San Antonio, Texas. Gross, a Riverview High School graduate, started working for Nock straight out of high school. According to the young sway-pole performer, the experience has completely elevated his life.
Gross, who trained with Sailor Circus for three years, first recalls seeing Nock in the audience at some of his performances. The clown’s hair made him hard to miss. And while everyone else in the tent appeared awestruck by the circus celebrity’s presence, the sheltered Gross had no idea who Nock was. “To me he was just the tall-hair guy,” says Gross.
The aspiring aerialist was eventually introduced to Nock by Circus Arts Conservatory Vice President Jennifer Mitchell during his senior class trip to the Funny Farm. Mitchell told Nock that Gross was seriously interested in pursuing a professional career in the circus. Gross, then 18, received a text message from the star shortly thereafter.
“It said something like ‘come over tomorrow and we’ll talk,’” Gross says. “So, I went over and talking turned into working … and I’ve been working for him ever since.”
One of the first things Nock asked Gross to do when he arrived at the Funny Farm was sand and repaint four of his 45-foot sway-poles. The job took Gross two weeks to complete, and in the heat of the summer no less.
The Sarasota teen quietly freaked out, worried he had gotten in over his head working for the overzealous entertainer.
“To be honest, Bello can be a little intense,” Gross says. “Before you complete one task, he’s got another one lined up. But there’s a method to his madness, and it completely changed my outlook on everything. Before Bello, I didn’t know how to do much for myself. Now I can change a tire, jump a car, cook a meal and wash a load of whites. I never worked for anyone with that kind of drive before. It’s been a quick intro into the world of solving your own problems.”
Now Nock’s right-hand man, Gross has traveled with the star to gigs in California, Texas, San Diego, Germany and most recently Saudi Arabia, where he performed with Nock and Annaliese in the opening ceremony for Cirque du Soleil.
Like all his endeavors, Nock says mentoring Gross is just another step toward a higher purpose, just another way of lifting someone up.
“There’s this perception that the circus is all chaos,” Nock says. “But actually, it’s the direct opposite. The reality is that it’s designed to make you think it’s chaos when really it’s highly structured. That’s how we’re able to do all these exotic, thrilling shows three times a day and not get hurt. What happens behind the tent is amazing. You’d have to see it to believe it.”