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Ringmaster strikes a perfect pitch, homers on anthem


Circus ringmaster Eric Michael Gillett played to a far bigger audience than usual last night, and got to sing one of his favorite numbers at Oriole Park: the National Anthem.

"It is a piece that brings people together in a wonderful way, that reminds them we live in a wonderful place," said Mr. Gillett, 40, who has more opportunities to sing about clowns and circus days than patriotism and love of country.

In his customary rhinestone-studded red jacket, formal black trousers and bow tie, Mr. Gillett stood in the concrete runway behind home plate moments before the game between the Orioles and the Texas Rangers, taking in his first-time view of the Camden Yards ballpark and the city skyline beyond centerfield, and pumping up his voice for the cameo appearance.

"Excuse me," he told a small entourage of circus press assistants and Oriole guides. "I've got to hit a high note."

He ducked into the low end of the tunnel and belted out a few lines: " . . . and the rockets red glaaaare . . . Oh, say does tha-aa-at Star-Spangled Baa-ner-er yee-et way-ave. . . ."

Overhead, in the expensive box seats behind the screen, a few fans looked around for the source of the golden tenor chords.

With his voice warmed to the occasion, Mr. Gillett took his cue and strode to the microphone behind home plate, fixed his eyes on the stadium flags and hit a "Star-Spangled Banner" equivalent of a home run for the still-arriving crowd of 36,511 baseball fans.

And his smile lit up the aptly named "Jumbotron" television screen over the bleachers.

Mr. Gillett said he can remember singing the anthem since his school days growing up in Los Angeles. "I was a boy soprano," he recalled. "I got the high notes."

But in more recent times, since he joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show fresh out of a Las Vegas circus-theme production, Mr. Gillett has been taking advantage of its cross-country travels to sing the anthem at major sporting events -- with the encouragement of circus management that is hardly adverse to the free publicity.

Mr. Gillett said he sang before his biggest audience in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium -- more than 60,000 people at a nationally televised, Monday night Steelers football game. He has also done it at other baseball parks, for military bases, at a Norfolk, Va., benefit for Desert Storm families, and before each circus performance during that Middle East conflict.

The ringmaster -- he prefers that title to being called "the singing ringmaster" -- said he believes many of the people who dislike "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem object because "they can't get the high notes."

"But there are just as many people who love the anthem because it is so stirring," said Mr. Gillett, whose tight performance schedule and out-of-town commitments have thus far kept him from visiting the song's Baltimore birthplace, Fort McHenry.

What about "America the Beautiful" as an anthem?

It is a song, he said, that anyone can sing "and it's a lovely sentiment. But 'The Star-Spangled Banner' has more to do with the strife and trouble this country has had to go through. I like what [it] says about us as a people, and where we came from.

"But find me a tenor who doesn't like the anthem. . . ."

Mr. Gillett said other singing types certainly can perform the anthem, but it does seem to favor a tenor. "A cello hitting its highest note is not the same as a trumpet," he said by way of illustration. He added, "I just hope I won't turn into a kazoo."

He didn't, despite the distractions.

There was the usher in those seats behind the screen, hollering down into the tunnel, "Why didn't you bring an elephant here?"

There was the little kid, handing down a small, heart-decorated notepad, asking for an autograph from anyone important enough to sing the anthem.

And there was the crowd's one-note accompaniment of "O's," thousands of voices strong, threatening to drown out his rendition of the song.

Forewarned of the fans' brief chorus, Mr. Gillett said, "I held the note a little longer so they could get it in before the next line."

That's a showman.

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