In my last communication, I stated that the Big Apple Circus had managed to raise $800,000 since launching the Save the Circus campaign. Indeed, as of today, July 18, I’ve been informed that there is more than $960,000 raised or pledged to help save the circus.
When the Save the Circus campaign launched four weeks ago, I was a bundle of nerves.
The Big Apple Circus has been a huge part of my life ever since Michael Christensen (my performance partner and fellow Founder), Alan Slifka (our founding Chairman of the Board), Richard Levy (an enthusiastic red-haired friend), and I founded our not-for-profit organization nearly 40 years ago. Frankly, I don’t know what life will be like without the circus, and I don’t like to think about it. The Big Apple Circus has not only brought joy to my life, but I know that the company has touched countless others through shared, warm human experiences, both through our annual shows and the five award-winning community programs that our wonderful organization has developed alongside our performance season.
Before stepping out of the ring in 2009, after every performance I would have the experience of several audience members coming up to me and recounting stories of attending the Big Apple Circus, as kids, with their parents … and the joy that they now feel being able to bring their own children to “this very special show.” Anyone who has talked to me for more than five minutes has probably heard at least one of many stories from my life in and around the circus. I’m always eager to share my tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and many are eager to listen, which is what prompted me to write Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion and Other Uncommon Tales from the Founder of the Big Apple Circus.
Since its founding, the Big Apple Circus has managed to touch the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people because of the determination of a group of ordinary people who have wanted to see extraordinary things happen in their lives. And now, I’m asking that you band together with us to ensure that extraordinary things continue to happen through the Big Apple Circus.
As of this morning, June 29, the Big Apple Circus has managed to raise over $800,000 in total contributions and pledges in just under a month. But we still have a long way to go to get to $2 million! I am overjoyed that over $115,000 of the total raised has been donated by about 1,150 ordinary people stepping up to contribute anywhere from $1 to $2,500 through SaveTheCircus.org.
Please consider standing with us and making a contribution right now.
The Big Apple Circus is an organization that serves the community. For 38 years we have brought the intimacy of the one-ring circus to communities in New York, Boston, and many other locations up and down the east coast. Through our community programs such as Clown Care and Circus of the Senses, we have worked to bring laughter, joy, and wonder to children of all ages and, equally as important, all abilities. In order to continue to do these things, we need people to contribute to the Save the Circus campaign. Let me repeat … we need your help.
The Big Apple Circus has not closed yet, and I surely won’t stop fighting for its survival. This organization means the world to me, and I sincerely hope that it means something to you as well.
When you go to the children’s garden, it’s amazing what emerges about your own childhood.
A few years back now, I wrote and published my book Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion (and Other Uncommon Tales from the Founder of the Big Apple Circus). I was fortunate enough to have Glenn Close write the foreword for me. I worked with Glenn on the musical Barnum where we worked with the cast and I actually taught her how to juggle. The book is a memoir–it’s a collection of stories from my life both before and during my time with the circus.
Looking back, I’m amazed at how some very important things never made it into the book. I somehow managed to forget whole issues from my childhood. Here’s a very important one that emerged recently.
One of the attractions in Sarasota that I’d never visited before (but is a vital part of my education as I always visit attractions that have to do with families and entertainment) is the wonderful Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. One portion of the gardens is designated as the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden, which is absolutely extraordinary. And who better to give me a review and serve as my market-research advisors than my own grandchildren? So Shelley and I took them there.
In the Rainforest Garden, there was a wonderful goldfish pond with those beautiful giant goldfish. You know the kind I mean … the really big ones who can’t wait to be fed so they’re always begging. But what caught my attention was in the center of the pond. There was a beautiful statue of the Buddha. As a tribute to my guided meditation teacher and dear friend, Julie Winter, I asked a woman standing by if she could take a photo of me and the statue and then another photo of the family. She kindly agreed.
After we settled on a couple good photos, I noticed an attractive older couple sitting nearby who I assumed were the woman’s parents. I also noticed that the man had a headset and microphone on, and because we were in a public garden, I asked him if he was a docent (tour guide). And he said to me in a gravely voice, “Oh, no. I have paralyzed vocal chords.”
“Oh, is that a result of arthritis?”
He replied, “No.”
And he said, “I had polio as a kid.”
A waterfall of tears welled up inside of me and I muttered, “So did I,” suddenly recalling a powerful and meaningful story from my childhood.
For two weeks during my childhood, I was bedridden with a high fever and aching legs. The doctor–they made house calls in those days!–would come in daily and measure my legs. I also recall my dad sitting on the end of my bed saying, “You’re a sick little Indian.” My parents were terrified, as all parents were in those days. Remember, please, that this was at the height of the polio epidemic.
The man asked me “What year?”
And I said, “I don’t know. 1949?”
He replied, “Mine was 1951.”
And I said, “Mine too! Because I was 9 years old.”
It turned out that I was lucky. My disease was finally diagnosed as a “non-paralytic form” of polio. Like all diseases, there’s a mystery as to how each of us reacts. Or, as one of my current doctors has said to me, “We’re each our own laboratory.”
Of all things, how could I have forgotten that?
There are intuitive moments in our lives, which most of us often don’t acknowledge. However, part of the Buddhist tradition is to accept these moments as part of the natural human experience. How fitting, then, that I should recall this life experience while posing in front of a statue of the Buddha.
The Big Apple Circus (re)opens tonight!!!
The next stop for “The Grand Tour” is Bridgewater, NJ, where the big top will stay up until March 13.
The shows at the Big Apple Circus have been getting better and better over the last few years, and this year’s show is terrific. Here are just a couple of some of the amazing acts:
And perhaps one of my favorite acts this year is Alexander Koblikov and his seasick sailor juggling routine. As a once-upon-a-time juggler myself, take my word for it … this kid’s got it. And no wonder–he holds a Guinness Book of World Records for juggling 14 balls at once.
Yesterday, Shelley and I made our return voyage from Monte Carlo where I was witness to four nights of the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo. Go ahead, say I’m “over the top,” but the collection of acts was simply the finest group of circus artists and performers ever to be assembled under a big top in one place at one time. They constituted an extraordinary group of what was called “classical” or “traditional” circus.
This is the fortieth anniversary of a glorious festival, and the committee, consisting of Dr. Frere, Urs Pils (German Circus Krone), and Princess Stéphanie of Monaco (President of the Festival and Jury), among several others, was determined to bring the best acts in the world and have each of them perform in one ring over two nights. (The Festival actually goes on for eight days more, but after the fourth performance there was a celebratory dinner and a day of rest).
Twenty-four of the twenty-eight acts had previously been winners (some of them multiple times) of the Gold, Silver, or Bronze Clown, the circus equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscars.
To have them assembled in one place at one time was akin to a religious experience for some circus fans. (Perhaps, that’s why I used the word “witness” in the preceding paragraph!) The festival is underwritten by the Palais de Monaco in a tent that seats 4,000+ audience members and is promoted year-round as part of the of the culture of the Principality of Monaco. No expense is spared.
The pre-festival cocktail party, the Circus Director’s Luncheon at the Hotel Hermitage, and the Festival Dinner are by invitation only. I was honored to attend all three, Shelley, two. Princess Stéphanie hosted all three events. We were invited to sit at her table along with Pauline Ducruet (Princess Stéphanie’s daughter), Marie-Jose Knie (a member of the Swiss Familie Knie Circus), Alexis Gruss (of the French Le Cirque Gruss Ancien), Flavio Togni (of the Italian Circo Americano), and Martin Lacey Jr. (Gold Clown winning trainer of large cats and star of Circus Krone). It was a thrill. Alexis is a long-standing friend of mine (and, I should add, once directed none other than Big Apple Circus’ own Artistic Director, Guillaume Dufresnoy). What an honor!
There were many memorable highlights under the big top as well:
Bello Nock, who won a Gold Clown some years ago, on his second night, was outstanding. (There were a variety of reasons, not his doing, that he was not his usual superb self on his first night.)
Desire of Flight, who were booked and contracted at BAC by Guillaume, got a well-deserved and very loud, standing ovation.
Alexis Gruss and Flavio Togni were the class of the festival with their horses already safe in the stable by the time the audience had finished their ovation.
Alexis Gruss and his 6 stallion “maypole.”
The Sokolov Troupe. In their first incarnation we knew them (in two different BAC seasons) as Kovgar Troupe. Sokolov is the second generation. Their act is a fun tribute to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with his music and costumes from the 18th century. Great tricks and super audience response.
Willer Niccolodi, the unlikely ventriloquist, fresh from his appearance at Circus Knie and BAC, filled the tent with peals of laughter.
Both the men’s and women’s Acrobatic Troupes of the “National Circus of China” were outstanding. (I’m not so sure that there is a such-named troupe except for one to prepare for festivals … drawn from several other groups around their nation.)
Another memorable routine was performed by the hand-to-hand acrobats, Scherbak and Popov, Gold Clown winners from the Ukraine.
The Caselly Family elephants (African, no less—known to be more difficult to train than their “cousins” the Asians) were superb.
Laura Miller and her aquatic aerial ring was unique.
Encho, the hand-balancing strongman, with whom I had the privilege to work at Circus Sarasota, was most memorable.
And several more …
I was especially pleased to be in the company of Mary Jane Brock, Big Apple Circus Vice Chair, and her husband, Charley, along with five of her friends, from school and early professional days.
It was a thrilling four days, one that reinforced the Big Apple Circus’s vitality and vision as an organization.
This past Tuesday night, January 5, the Big Apple Circus big top played host to the Celebration of American Circus. A mixture of performance and awards ceremony, the event presented by Circus Now and the Big Apple Circus, in association with Jonathan S. Cerullo and JSC Theatricals, honored four artists/organizations who have made significant contributions to Circus Arts in the United States.
Here are the five honorees this year.
From left to right are Ed LeClair (Executive Director of Circus Smirkus), Dominique Jando (world circus historian and author), Rob Mermin (Founder of Circus Smirkus), Bill Irwin (clown/actor), and Hovey Burgess (Professor of Theatre and Circus Arts and Master Teacher at NYU TISCH School of the Arts). Circus Smirkus received the Community Impact Award, Dominique Jando the Elevating Circus Award, Bill Irwin the Evolving Circus Award, and Hovey Burgess the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Below is David Shiner (actor/clown) who presented the award to Bill Irwin.
And here they are together.
Below is the beautiful Dolly Jacobs (award-winning circus aerialist and Founder of Circus Sarasota) who presented the award to Hovey.
Pictured below are the two together flanked by this year’s Big Apple Circus clowns, performed by Joel Jeske (left) and Brent McBeth (right).
By the way, Hovey’s in a wheelchair because he fell down and broke his leg.
One of the featured performers at this year’s ceremony was aerialist Sergey Akimov, who is featured in this year’s show at the Big Apple Circus. “The Grand Tour” is the second time in the last six years that Sergey has performed with us. He actually grew up at the Big Apple Circus because his father and uncle, the Egorov Troupe, were performers there. He’s a wonderful and skilled artist.
I’m hoping we will see the continuation of this event in the future.
All photos by Maike Schulz.
It’s been quite a while since my last post, but that’s because there’s just too much going on, here in my “retirement”! I’ve been working on a few really fun projects this past coupla’ weeks, so I’d like to tell you about some of them.
First of all, the Big Apple Circus has moved into Lincoln Center for the season. I made my way up to Walden, New York, a few times over the past several months to watch the show as it developed and moved into dress rehearsals. The new show is called “The Grand Tour” and it’s a loving homage to 1920s travel. I’ll write more about the new show soon, but for now, I want to say that it’s definitely worth attending. It’s one of our strongest shows ever and features some truly remarkable talent.
I also spent a week between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the first half of October. My sweetheart and partner, Shelley Doctors, had her organization’s annual psychology conference in L.A. this year–not quite as picturesque as last year’s conference in Israel, but still good. Before making our way to southern California, we stopped off in the Bay Area so that I could visit the San Francisco Circus School, on whose advisory board I sit. While in California, I was able to spend some time with both of my sons (and a couple of my grandchildren), which certainly made the trip worthwhile. Max, who grew up at the Big Apple Circus as a performer, is a “scrum master” at Wikimedia, the parent company of Wikipedia. You want to know what a scrum master is, I suppose? Well, leave me a comment below. And Adam, Max’s older brother who lives and works in the L.A. area, is the Executive Vice President of a division of Warner Brothers Television. Max is a graduate of Harvard, and Adam is a fellow Dartmouth graduate. Not too shabby a sibling rivalry, eh?
Speaking of rivalries, I went to the game at Dodger Stadium where the Mets won the National League pennant. I was in disguise … my Mets t-shirt under my sweater.
Next, as I mentioned previously, I had an opportunity to go down to Sarasota Florida and perform my cabaret for the Sarasota Showfolks Club. The evening was arranged by Leigh Ketchum and Brian Liddicoat as a fundraiser for the Showfolks, CFA Tent 122, and the Sarasota Ring of Fame. I have been developing a cabaret show for the Metropolitan Room in New York, so I was delighted when Leigh and Brian asked if I would come be a guest of honor at the Showfolks–it was the perfect opportunity for “an out-of-town tryout.”
My accompanist and musical director, the incomparable Dennis Buck, was able to join me in Sarasota for the event and even agreed to perform one of the show’s duets with me since since my friends Lainie Cooke and Bradley Jones, who will be singing with me at the Metropolitan Room, are based in New York. In addition to Dennis, I was fortunate enough to be united with a wonderful local Sarasota performer, Dagmar Beavers, who kindly agreed to sing one solo number, a duet with me, and a finale trio.
The Showfolks were extremely gracious, and we had a great turnout. I’m sure we could have crammed in a few more people if we had wanted everyone to be packed in like sardines, but I was very pleased with the size and energy of the audience. Plus, my two youngest kids came to watch their old man risk his life … singing … in front of a room full of people. It was wonderful to have a full audience watch my cabaret for the first time, and my anticipation for my benefit performance for the Big Apple Circus community programs is growing. It’s at the Metropolitan Room (34 W. 22nd St., btwn. 5th and 6th) on December 5. The Room tells me they’re likely to sell out, so get your tickets soon! (Click here for ticket information.)
One other event that I had a great time doing recently: last night I hosted the annual Living Landmarks Gala for the New York Landmarks Conservancy at the Plaza Ballroom. The event was a gas. Check back real soon because I’ve lots to say about that evening.
Last week, I drove up to Lenox, Mass. with my sweetheart and partner, Shelley Doctors for a Dartmouth class of ‘63 mini-reunion and to see (and hear) the incomparable Tanglewood on Parade Gala Concert. The Tanglewood Shed is enormous, with a capacity of over 5,500. In addition, thousands more sit outside on the grass. Tanglewood has been the main summer venue of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for more than 75 years.
Shelley and I met up with fifteen of my classmates and their wives/partners for afternoon drinks at Carole and Rich Berkowitz’s beautiful house before dinner, then headed to the concert venue. Rich is one of a few of my former classmates that I keep up with on a regular basis, but it’s so nice to be able to gather together and share stories face to face with all of them.
Tanglewood on Parade is an all day event, beginning with fanfares at the main gate at two o’clock. There are concerts around the Tanglewood complex throughout the day, and at night is the Gala Concert. Along with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood on Parade event featured the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the Boston Pops.
The climax of the entire concert was certainly the final piece: a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture complete with cannon booms that are in the score. The sound of real cannons was incredible. I also particularly enjoyed listening to the Pops, who played a wonderful tribute to Frank Sinatra and a couple pieces from Star Wars by composer John Williams. Also they performed a violin piece that was a tribute to Williams’ late wife, that had me in tears. (My father was a violinist.)
I once conducted the Boston Pops as part of the Big Apple Circus. The event was filmed for PBS and titled Pops Joins the Circus. The act went something like this:
After being quickly changed, by the clowns, out of my ringmaster suit and into a clown costume, I ended up in front of the 80 piece Pops Orchestra, who were seated in the center section of the Big Top audience. Now a clown, I soon discovered that I could control the orchestra by waving my hands. After dancing to the music and goofing around for a bit, I selected some kids from the audience to try their hands at conducting, which they did very successfully. When I invited an adult into the ring, though, the movement of his hands resulted in the horribly discordant sound of hash from the Pops. With closer inspection, I signaled to the audience that he had dirty hands. Well, I cleaned him up, and wouldn’t you know, the dissonant chords morphed back into beautiful symphonic sounds of Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne (the Can-Can).
And here’s some old footage from the Pops Joins the Circus event:
For four days last week I attended the Worldwide Circus Summit in West Springfield, Massachusetts. 850 people attended the event from around the world. The vast majority were American Circus fans, most of them associated with organizations such as the Circus Fans Association of America, the Circus Historical Society, and Circus Model Builders. Also in attendance were circus directors, museum directors, university scholars and program directors, and―probably most importantly―there were 6 or 7 circus schools and youth circuses, including performances by kids from Circus Harmony, a “social circus” run by Jessica Hentoff, a first and second year performer at the Big Apple Circus and an admirer of our community programming.
There were tables from about 30 organizations set up, including a Big Apple Circus Souvenir Table, which was run by Cheryl Jones, Gigi Price, and Mary Griffin.
There were panels and presentations every day. I was asked to attend several panels, and I actively participated in two:
- “Impact of the circus on contemporary culture” with circus historians Fred Dahlinger, Fred Pfennig III, and David Carlyon
- “Circus Directors’ Forum,” moderated by Wayne McCary (former President of the Eastern States Exposition and the Big E Super Circus), with Barbara Miller Byrd (Carson & Barnes Circus), Brian Boswell (Boswell’s Circus, South Africa), Zsuzsanna Mata (Budapest Circus Festival, Hungary), John Pugh (Cole Bros Circus), Katya and Nelson Quiroga (Circus Vargas), Jim Royal (Kelly Miller Circus), and Ramon Vazquez (Circo Hermanos Vazquez, Mexico).
There was also a wonderful discussion on clowning which included my dear friend Barry Lubin (“Grandma” the clown), along with Ringling and Big Apple Circus veteran clown Greg Desanto and David Kaiser, Director of Talent and former clown at Ringling. Ringling’s VP of Event Marketing Sales Bill Powell and Feld Entertainment’s VP of Corporate Communications Stephen Payne did presentations which were very impressive. Also presenting were Helmut Grosscurth, Managing Director of the European Circus Association, and Laura Van Der Meer, Executive Director of the World Circus Foundation.
There were also several banquets during the summit. I was asked to introduce Barry, the honored guest speaker, at one of these. Barry was brilliant and had us all laughing out loud. And, of course, what’s a Circus Summit without some circus performances? The Cole Brothers Circus had four very strong performances, and Circus Smirkus performed in a town nearby. Circus Smirkus was particularly delightful.
I was overjoyed to see so many members of the Big Apple Circus’s extended family. At one of the panels, I counted 19 people who were at one time or another employees of the Big Apple Circus. (I introduced them as “members of the Big Apple Circus Alumni Association.”) Other alumni were busy performing, so couldn’t attend.
Every so often I’ll come across something special that I’ll refer to as “a treasure.” It so happens that in my files I came across just such a treasure not too long ago: the original proposal for the Big Apple Circus, which at the time we pitched as “a permanent circus and circus school for New York City.” The proposal book is filled with hand-drawn illustrations of circus performers drawn by my cousin, the artist Peter Leventhal, and at the center of the proposal is a fun full-page sketch of an imagined Big Apple Circus big top created by the wonderfully talented Mimi Gross.
The proposal book includes a detailed description of what would become the very first season of the Big Apple Circus in 1977, as well as a preliminary budget and letters of support from Wickham Boyle, the Director of Special Projects for the City of New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs; Philippe Petit, fresh from his World Trade Center wire walk; and Hovey Burgess, Master Teacher of circus techniques in the master’s acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
I’m including one of the pages of text from the proposal book below because of its important message. I think these words remain as true today as they were then.