Every superhero needs a secret lair. It’s the place where he can restore and replenish his powers; where he maintains his collection of vehicles and mechanical marvels; where he plans and trains for his next adventure. Trusted confidants are admitted, but the secret lair is first and foremost a place where the superhero can just be himself.
Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. Batman has his Batcave. And Sarasota’s own Bello Nock—who is about as close to a superhero as you can get and still be human—has his Funny Farm.
It’s located on 16 acres of land just east of town. A tall fence surrounds it; but passersby, if they have sharp eyes, can peek through the cracks and see amazing things: fantastical riggings, old-fashioned train cars, even a quartet of pot-bellied pigs wandering the grounds at will. If they’re lucky they may even see Bello, poised many stories above them on his famous Wheel of Death, with his trademark, foot-high strawberry-blond hair standing on end.
Bello is the world’s greatest comic daredevil. Ringling Bros. owner Kenneth Feld—for whom Bello headlined for eight years—has said he’s “unlike anyone in the history of the circus, a once-in-a-lifetime performer.” He has skywalked over a cruise ship and been shot from a cannon, flying right over a helicopter’s whirling blades. This last feat was one of those he performed last August on the TV show America’s Got Talent, and the reactions of the terrified judges is worth googling.
The Funny Farm is also the Nock homestead, a beehive of activity with Bello, his wife Jennifer—who manages things and writes many of Bello’s skits—along with a rotating mix of their three grown children and various relatives and apprentices. The newest member of the crew is granddaughter Candace, who was already performing by her first birthday. (She can balance herself on the palm of Grandpa’s hand.)
Jennifer Nock has ruled, wisely no doubt, “No circus comes in the house.” So the circus resides in a building nearby. Like most secret lairs, it’s in disguise, looking like an ordinary steel warehouse on the outside. But open the door and you’re in a world of wonders.
Here you will find not only a living history of Bello’s career but a gold mine of circus history. He has the trunk containing all the apparatus of Franz Unus, the legendary performer who could stand on one finger—an echo of which can be found in Bello’s own one-finger pushups. Nothing is ever discarded. There are two dozen trampolines, a row of high-wire motorcycles, the three largest airbags in the world (Bello has landed on them after falling more than 200 feet), and an untold wealth of props, including a five-foot-tall fire plug that chases dogs. Also tucked away are more sentimental memories, like the trunk that Bello’s mother brought with her from Europe when she moved to the United States to perform as an aerialist for Ringling back in the 1950s.
Bello’s equipment is so specialized that it can’t be bought. “I design and build everything myself,” he says, and one area of the lair is set up for this purpose. Here he cuts metal and welds it, creating engineering marvels so complicated it’s hard to believe that Bello never graduated from high school.
A tour of the Funny Farm is a heady experience. Bello is a talker—he speaks five languages, picked up while performing all over the world. “I think I must have an undiagnosed case of ADD,” he theorizes. One topic follows another at a breakneck pace. The circus is his passion, and there is no one alive who knows more about its traditions and possibilities.
“It’s all about the emotion you deliver,” he explains. “It’s never about me. It’s about the feeling the audience gets while they’re watching.”
Creating that feeling—dreaming it up, putting it together and then perfecting it—has been his life’s work since he started performing at age 3. “I was a klutz,” he remembers. “The one they laughed at. Pigeon-toed, buck teeth. I was like, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ I was trying to get my father’s attention.”
The klutz did good. Building on what his father—a member of the famous Swiss-based Circus Nock—taught him, he has reached the pinnacle of the circus world. Time magazine called him “America’s Best Clown.” An enormous wall of posters anthologizes Bello’s star appearances with circuses around the world.
But look carefully at a little door in a corner of the wall. Here one enters the Sanctum Sanctorum, the innermost part of the lair. The room is crammed with unusual musical instruments, of which Bello boasts, “I play all of them—equally badly.” Not that badly, though. He has played with musicians ranging from Cheap Trick to Bruce Springsteen. “Again, it’s all about the wire,” he says. Theirs is on a guitar, his is 60 feet up in the air. But they both have an intuitive understanding of how to manipulate it and why it must be respected.
A nearby door leads to the costume room. The spangled and colorful clothes go all the way back to his first appearance with Disney at age 3. Clown shoes line the shelves. He has different ones for each type of stunt, and they are all custom-made by a man in Mexico. “They’re the most comfortable shoes in the world,” he says.
For a man described by the New York Daily News as the greatest athlete ever to perform in Madison Square Garden, Bello seems a modest physical specimen. Neither tall nor short, he has a hint of stockiness. Any muscles are usually hidden under a costume—rarely form-fitting, usually oversized—or the everyday clothes of an average Sarasota.
Except for the hair, of course. The singular “do” is always present. He wore it to his wedding—and to his father’s funeral. “The only time I don’t wear it is when I’m directing or producing,” he says. Then the focus is on what he is creating, not himself.
Outdoors the tour continues. You see the cannon Bello gets fired out of, the helicopter that he hangs from, and the railroad car, painted in Ringling Bros. colors, where his parents made their home in the 1950s. Also neatly scattered about are 30 or so boxcars he purchased from Ringling when the circus closed its doors last May.
But the most remarkable superhero artifact looks straight out of a comic book. It’s called The Ultimate, and Bello describes it as “a modern-day Rube Goldberg contraption on steroids.” Rising six stories over the Florida landscape, it’s the framework for his ultimate daredevil stunt—15 of them, in fact, performed as a race against time in 15 minutes.
At 47, Bello is in his prime. He’s never missed a performance and has never had an accident. And he’s aware of his hold over the audience. “I’ve seen the power of what I do,” he says.
He recalls the day when, after a performance, a 300-pound biker-looking man sought him out. “His eyes were red. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. What had I done?” The man had his son with him. The 13-year-old had suffered from autism since birth. But while watching Bello’s act he had spoken the very first word of his life.
The word? “Bello!”