Summer Journal: When the Circus Comes to Town, or Anywhere Close, I’m There

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
I love the circus. I love the sound of the band, the smell of elephants, the thrill of watching acrobats swirling on velvet ropes or swinging from trapezes.

When I was a young man traveling in Europe on $5 a day, I splurged and bought a ticket to the Orfie Circorama in Parma, Italy. I didn’t know that Europeans take their circuses much more seriously than we do. I hoped to see at least one elephant, or possibly a mangy old lion.

The Orfei was amazing. There were three rings and an opening act that featured 36 perfectly trained and color-matched horses. There was a more-than-middle-aged woman wrestling an alligator in a 10-by-10 foot tank. Long past my usual bedtime, lions and tigers and bears kept me on the edge of my seat. I thought that someday I wanted to be a part of a circus.

Since then, for more than 40 years, I’ve gone to every circus I could. None has been on the scale of the Orfei, but they’ve all been fun. Sadly, the Big Apple Circus no longer makes a stop in Hanover.

Recently my partner, Cindy Heath, and I took my two grandchildren, George (age 9) and his sister, Casey (age 6) to see the Kelly Miller Circus in Keene at the Cheshire County Fairgrounds.

The Kelly Miller Circus is a family-run circus out of Oklahoma that has been around for 75 years. Before buying my tickets I went online and learned that the circus this year has six tigers, three elephants, three zebras and a couple of camels. All that, and acrobats, clowns and jugglers. I got tickets right away and at the circus got ringside seats for a $2 surcharge.

Before we even got to the gate, Casey was enthralled with the ponies, and I gladly bought her a ticket to ride one. Six little ponies, each just three feet tall, walked slowly around in a circle, each attached to an iron spoke that kept delinquent ponies from going too fast or running off with my grandchild. Very reassuring — both for me, and for Casey. Of course, the ride is never long enough, but she was lured forward by the sight of popcorn, hot dogs and cotton candy. Oh boy!

For me, the circus really is about the animals. Yes, I’ve seen elephants in the African veldt from a safe distance. But there is something special about seeing elephants up close while sitting next to a 6-year-old who has never seen a live one. Grandchildren whose eyes become as big and round as doughnuts. And at the Kelly Miller circus, there was the special allure of sleek tigers lounging and yawning and stretching before the show on a grassy lawn inside a metal enclosure, looking for all the world like tabbies, only much, much bigger.

The tiger trainer seemed to love his big kitties. They sat on tall stools and cavorted around the ring. On request, some jumped over their fellow felines (or as faux-delinquents, crawled under them when asked to jump over). They stood up on their back legs, demonstrating how long a tiger really is. They showed their teeth and acted fierce. But when the handler stooped over and kissed one of the tigers on the head after doing a trick nicely, my heart melted. Once again, I wanted to join the circus.

Then there were clowns. Steve and Ryan, who had trained and performed together at Ringling Bros. Circus, did a variety of classic slapstick tricks. Klunk, one get hits on the head when the other turns around while carrying a plank. They tormented the ringmaster with trombones. One clown fit inside a giant set of dentures while the other tried to brush them with a four-foot toothbrush. And so on.

Later, young zebras ran in circles around the ring. But one kept going the wrong direction. Their handler, an elderly Willie Nelson look-alike dressed all in black with a pony tail, looked either cross or bored, I wasn’t sure which. But watching teenage zebras galloping close by is fun.

Teenage girls wearing costumes with wings climbed up the velvet ropes and were swung in circles by dudes in shiny costumes. A man trying to catch a balloon climbed 20 feet into the air by stacking chairs, one on top of another. Twin 8-year-old boys climbed up a 25-foot pole balanced on their father’s head while their acrobat mother watched nervously.

A fire-eating Rastafarian-looking guy swirled flaming objects on ropes, set his clothes on fire and spit flames from his mouth in a massive explosion. I later talked to him when he was helping sell rides on the camel, and he said he spit a mouthful of lighter fluid at a flame. “Isn’t lighter fluid bad for you,” I asked? He responded with a shrug: “Life is bad for you.”

During a break in the acts, I bought peanuts for Casey and George, knowing that some packages had coupons good for a big balloon on a stick. Lady Luck was with us, and they each won one. We managed to get one of the balloons back home without it popping, which I thought was pretty good. No tears were shed, either, though Casey was pretty disappointed when hers popped. Fortunately, Cindy had already bought her an inflatable unicorn, which was made of tougher stuff.

During intermission we learned from a circus hand that the elephants had been detained at the New Hampshire border by health authorities, and would not be appearing. Fortunately, they gained admission to the state and made a last-minute appearance at the end of the show. These three elderly pachyderms performed a variety of tricks: standing on stools, putting their front feet up on the back of another elephant; and lumbering around the ring. It appeared that they were enjoying their slow and dignified act.

On the way home I asked my grandchildren if they’d like to join the circus, perhaps learn to climb a 20-foot pole that I’d balance on my head. Casey and George are pretty adventurous, but neither was ready to sign up. Me? I’ve always wanted to be in a circus — but know my limitations.

As luck would have it, I did get to learn some circus tricks just a couple of weeks later, when I attended a three-hour intensive circus workshop for adults in Plainfield. It was part of a summer-long series of kids’ camps and adult workshops run by the Van Lodostov Family Circus. For a mere $35 I got the basics of clowning, walking a wire (12 inches above the ground, not 30 feet), riding a unicycle, juggling and more. At age 67 I managed to climb up 20 feet or so on one of those velvet-looking ropes I saw in the Kelly Miller Circus. Maybe I do have a future in the circus!

The writer can be reached at

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