Remembrances
5:06 pm
Mon May 19, 2014

For A Showman Larger Than Life, An Even Bigger Best Friend

Originally published on Tue May 20, 2014 3:41 pm

Ivor David Balding once said, "I wanted an elephant all my life." And he got her: Balding adopted a baby elephant named Flora. Together, he and his beloved elephant were the stars of Circus Flora, which he co-founded in St. Louis. Decades later, the circus remains an institution in the city.

Balding recently died at the age of 75. For more on his life and unlikely friendship, NPR's Audie Cornish turned to circus composer Miriam Cutler. Cutler co-produced and composed the score to One Lucky Elephant, a documentary about Balding's relationship with Flora. More important, she was a good friend to them both for many years.


Interview Highlights

On the peculiar wardrobe difficulties of being best friends with an elephant

David was quite a presence. He had a very large physical presence and a booming theatrical voice. I think he was born to be a ringmaster. He always dressed with the top hat and tails when he was the ringmaster.

Normally, [David] always had to be careful what he wore, because when you hang out with an elephant — elephants' trunks are also their noses, and so they have a lot of constant snot. Flora was always putting her trunk around David, reaching in his pockets, looking for treats. I always made a joke that every shirt he had had spots on it.

On how Balding came to adopt Flora

The story goes — and the way he described it in our film, One Lucky Elephant — he was raised by a family that worked with horses. So, early on, he always had an affinity for animals. He said often that he always dreamed of having an elephant, because I think he was raised with the Babar stories.

I guess in his travels, he came to understand that there were these baby elephants available. Unfortunately in Africa, especially at that time in the '80s, there was a lot of culling going on of the African elephant herds. They were killing the adults and taking the babies, and then selling them. And so David heard about these baby elephants that were available and decided that he was going to go get one.

On their bittersweet separation

As he was getting older, he was really very concerned about the fact that she was going to outlive him, and he wanted to make sure that he took care of her. David knew Carol Buckley, who was running [a] sanctuary.

The idea was that he was supposed to be able to visit her regularly, and he was planning to. But Flora developed some behavioral problems, and Carol decided that it would be better if she didn't see David again. David was really heartbroken. This was one of those classic situations of people having their heart in the right place, but they have very different ideas about what's best for the elephant. We all wonder if Flora knows that he died.

On the decision to hold Balding's memorial at the circus

You know, David got married in the circus tent, too. All the animals were there; Flora was the maid of honor. It was really, really fun, so I know that the animals will be there and so many of his friends from so many years of him being a major part of that world.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ivor David Balding once said: I wanted an elephant all my life. And he got her. He adopted a baby elephant named Flora. And together he and his beloved elephant were stars of Circus Flora, still an institution in St. Louis. Balding passed away this month. He was 75.

To remember him, we're joined by Miriam Cutler. She was the resident composer at the circus for years and she joins us from NPR West.

Miriam Culter, welcome to the program.

MIRIAM CUTLER: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: First, I want to offer my condolences on the loss of your friend. Tell us a little bit more about what he looked like.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: When I see the photos, you know, he sort of dressed in that theatrical, the high hat and the kind of gold brocade vest. What was he like outside of the ring?

CUTLER: Oh, David was quite a presence. He had a very large physical presence and a booming theatrical voice. I think he was born to be a ringmaster. And he always dressed with the top hat and tails when he was the ringmaster. You know, normally he had to always be...

(LAUGHTER)

CUTLER: ...careful what he wore because when you hang out with an elephant, elephants' trucks are also their noses. And so, they have a lot of constant snot.

CORNISH: Oh.

CUTLER: And so...

(LAUGHTER)

CUTLER: So Flora was always putting her trunk around David, reaching in his pockets, looking for treats. So I was made a joke, you know, that every shirt he had had spots on it.

CORNISH: How did Mr. Balding come to adopt Flora the elephant?

CUTLER: Well, you know, the story goes in the way described in our film, "One Lucky Elephant," he was raised by a family that worked with horses. And so, early on he always had an affinity for animals. He said often that he always dreamed of having an elephant because, I think, he was raised with the "Babar" stories. And so, I guess in his travels, you know, he came to understand that there were these baby elephants available.

Unfortunately, in Africa, especially at that time in the '80s there was a lot of culling going on of the African elephant herds. And they were killing the adults and taking the babies and then selling them. And so, David heard about these baby elephants that were available and decided he was going to go get one.

CORNISH: By 2004, Flora the elephant had moved to an elephant sanctuary -a natural habitat refuge in Tennessee. Talk a little bit about their separation, if they ever saw each other again.

CUTLER: Well, this is one of the really sort of bittersweet aspects of David's story. As he was getting older, he was really, really very concerned about the fact that she was going to outlive him. And he wanted to make sure that he took care of her. And so, David knew Carol Buckley who was running that sanctuary. You know, the idea was that he was supposed to able to visit her regularly. And he was planning to. But Flora developed some behavioral problems.

And Carol decided that it would be better if she didn't see Dave again. David was really heartbroken. But, you know, this is one of those classic situations of people having their heart in the right place. But they have very different ideas about what's best the elephant. We all wonder if Laura knows that he died.

CORNISH: I understand there is going to be a memorial at the circus.

CUTLER: You know, David got married in the circus tent, too. And all the animals were there. Flora was the maid of honor.

(LAUGHTER)

CUTLER: You know, it was really, really fun. So I know that the animals will be there and so many of his friends from so many years of him being, you know, a major part of the world.

CORNISH: Miriam Cutler, thank you so much for sharing your memories with us.

CUTLER: Yes, thank you for having me. He will be very, very, very missed.

CORNISH: Miriam Cutler, her friend Ivor David Balding, co-founder of Circus Flora in St. Louis, passed away earlier this month. He was 75.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program