Jun 072016

The front page article of the Metropolitan section of the New York Times on Sunday, June 5 was an article by columnist Ginia Bellafante titled “Can the Big Apple Circus Be Saved.” (Click here to read the column.)

In her column, Ms. Bellafante refers to a bagel advertisement that I showed her during a meeting at the Big Apple Circus offices. As word about the bagel ad got out before the advertisement itself, I wanted you all to have an opportunity to see it. Here it is:

What’s the price of a bagel got to do with saving the
Big Apple Circus?

Save the Circus Bagel PhotoThe average seat at New York’s most beloved circus was $25 in 1981, our first season at Lincoln Center. A Zabar’s Bagel cost 35¢ then, now $1.66.

Today our average ticket is $50. By bagel math, it should have risen to $118. Our performers soar, but our prices don’t. That’s part of our mission as a not-for-profit arts organization. On the quiet side we are deeply engaged in raising the spirits of hospitalized children with our heralded Clown Care program.

Our 2015/16 show got rave reviews. It was a New York Times critic’s pick and played to over 200,000 people. In popcorn numbers, that’s 9 bazillion kerneIs. In dollars though, that’s not enough.

We’re going broke.

After many years of balanced books, the 2008/9 financial crisis hit. Suddenly big companies canceled private parties with us––let’s just say the optics of throwing a lavish holiday party in the midst of crashing markets would rival a solo performance by Nero on violin. Then a blizzard in 2011 and a massive hurricane in 2012 nearly blew us away. We were too slow to react.

We need $2 million or we’re toast.

Okay, mea culpa, but a major plan is now in place to right our valiant ship and sail into the future. But we need $2 million to open our new show at Lincoln Center and remain one of New York’s treasures. That’s a lot of bagels.

Please help!

If everyone who reads this ad donates $25 we’d be saved. There are more urgent causes that deserve your generosity, but none that give more joy. Please help preserve one of the most wonderful experiences of your life for yourself, your children, and your grandchildren.

In 1981 an H&H Bagel was 50¢ and today they’re out of business. That can’t happen to the Big Apple Circus. Can it?

Save the Circus Mailer

 Please consider contributing online at www.SaveTheCircus.org.
And please share this important message with your family and friends.

Oct 072014

While writing the blog about my most recent stint with Circus of the Senses, I was reminded of the very first Circus of the Senses in 1988. I was one of three commentators at that very first event alongside two men whom I greatly respected and admired: Marty Glickman and Dave Jennings.

Marty had been one of my boyhood heroes. If his name sounds familiar but it’s difficult to place … Marty was a professional athlete as a young man, born and raised in the Bronx. At the 1936 Olympics he was scheduled to run in the 4 x 100m relay for the United States. However, the day before the race, he was swapped out. Why? Well, Hitler’s Berlin in 1936 was not the most encouraging  place for a young Jewish man to succeed. Later in life, Marty went on to be a radio announcer/commentator for several New York sports teams. He was the first television announcer for the NBA and one of the first announcers for the (then) New Jersey Nets. He also worked with the New York Knicks and the New York Giants for over twenty years, as well as on some New York Rangers broadcasting. If any of you can remember back that far, Marty was the man who came up with the slogan “New York Football Giants.”

The other commentator was Dave Jennings. Dave was a football punter who played for the “New York Football Giants” and the New York Jets. After his career with the NFL as a punter, he worked as a radio commentator for both the Giants and Jets games from the booth and in the locker room, covering player interviews both pre and post game.

The commentators at the first Circus of the Senses. This picture is from a plaque that reads: THANK YOU FOR MAKING "CIRCUS OF THE SENSES" A TRULY MEMORABLE EVENT FROM YOUR FRIENDS AT WCBS NEWS 88 NOVEMBER 18, 1988

The commentators at the first Circus of the Senses. This picture is from a plaque that reads:
NOVEMBER 18, 1988

The photograph above is the only one I know about from the first Circus of the Senses. In the back row from right to left are Marty, me, Dave, and Mr. Gordoon (Jeff Gordon). The three boys in front were visually impaired and are listening to our commentary through their personal hearing devices.

All of this to say that my fellow announcers knew their stuff. In fact, Marty was such a great radio announcer, that comedians often joked that he could describe things that weren’t happening. Marty could fix any improper call with a “lateral”: “He’s tackled on the five yard line. Wait, wait … it’s a lateral, and it’s a touchdown!”

Now, can you imagine how excited I was for the very first Circus of the Senses as I stood between Marty and Dave? Me, a Brooklynite, sandwiched between two iconic New York sports celebrities. I was thrilled.

My longtime performance partner Michael Christensen joined me as commentator during the third year of Circus of the Senses, and since that time, the two of us have done many events together.

May 052014

Circus Accidents - CNN LogoThis morning I went on CNN’s “This Hour” with John Berman and Michaela Pereira. They asked me to be on as a circus expert.

If you haven’t already heard, there was a terrible accident yesterday in Providence, Rhode Island. During an aerial act in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Legends” show, something went wrong with the rigging equipment and eight female performers fell from a height of over twenty feet. A dancer on the ground was also injured. A few audience members caught the tragic moments on camera and have posted their clips online. The video footage is startling. Fortunately, the Ringling team responded immediately to the accident, and emergency vehicles arrived quickly. As of this morning, eight circus members were still hospitalized. CNN reports that two of them are in critical condition.

One of the young ladies, Samantha Ellen Pitard, posted on Facebook that all of them were conscious and talking, even those said to be in critical condition. My thoughts and prayers are with the performers, their families, and the entire circus community.

This is an awful and tragic accident. As circus performers, we know that such accidents are always a possibility, but because of our extreme care and safety practices, these types of things rarely happen.

This Hour with Berman and Michaela

This Hour with Berman and Michaela

A major question of the broadcast was whether or not dangerous circus performances should even be performed. As John Berman said, though, part of the circus is about taking risks, and as I reiterated, safety is always a huge concern with the development of any act. Safety measures are put into place as each act develops, and equipment is meticulously inspected before and after rehearsals and performances, often by the performers themselves. Yesterday’s accident seems to have been a rigging failure, and an investigation is currently underway to determine the exact cause. However, I’m positive that Ringling Brothers was thorough in their safety inspections prior to the incident and would have done anything within their power to prevent such a thing from happening.

The other guest on CNN during the segment was Luciano Anastasini, who has worked with the Big Apple Circus. Long before his time with us, Luciano suffered his own tragic performance accident. About 25 years ago he fell from a considerable height while performing on the “Wheel of Destiny.” After many years and several surgeries, he was able to recover, although his career as an aerialist was over. When he worked with us at the Big Apple Circus, he had re-invented himself. His new act is a comedy animal number featuring dogs rescued from animal shelters across the country. It’s a real crowd pleaser. He’s featured with the Big Apple Circus on the six-hour PBS documentary series “Circus.”

It was great to see Luciano, and it was also a pleasure to meet John and Michaela on CNN. I only wish it had been under happier circumstances.

Feb 182014
The Great Hall at Cooper Union after The Moth

The Great Hall at Cooper Union after The Moth

It’s been a week since The Moth event, and I think I’ve almost fully recovered. It was an incredible night, and I was honored to share the stage with a handful of incredible storytellers. A stage, I might add, on which Abraham Lincoln once stood. Oy!

First, a correction … Last week before the event I said that Peter Sagal was going to be the MC for the evening. Well as it happened, Peter was one of the other storytellers, and oh boy, was his story excellent! As it turned out, the host for the evening was the writer and performer Jessi Klein.

Photo from Comedy Central Presents: Jessi Klein

Photo from Comedy Central Presents: Jessi Klein

Jessi is currently the head writer and an executive producer for the show Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central, and she’s a regular panelist on Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! And she did a fantastic job as MC. Between storytellers, Jessi shared her own brief anecdotes dealing primarily with the subject of how flirting can lead to disaster—a creative way to tie together the evening. After all, the title of the event was “Flirting with Disaster: Stories of Narrow Escapes” and last week was Valentine’s Day.

The air date is still yet to be determined, but you can be sure that I’ll tell everyone I know when the date and time have been finalized.

I don’t want to give away any of the stories that were shared last week so that you can all thoroughly enjoy them during their broadcast, but I do want to encourage you to be on the lookout for my fellow storytellers: Tara Clancy, Nicole C. Kear, Shannon Cason, and Peter Sagal.

The Moth - Tara Clancy

Tara Clancy

Nicole C. Kear

Nicole C. Kear

The Moth - Shannon Cason

Shannon Cason

Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal

















When you listen to the broadcast, I’m sure you all will be as enthralled by their stories as were the 900 audience members at Cooper Union last Monday night.

A huge thanks to everyone at The Moth Radio Hour for making me (how shall I say?) sweat ….

Nov 272013

This week, many of us will be heading into the kitchen to prepare a meal for our families and friends. I myself am no great chef, but every year around Thanksgiving I’m reminded of the time I worked for one.  The following excerpt is from my book Never Quote The Weather to A Sea Lion… (available for purchase here).

In 1963, barely out of Dartmouth College, I’d been hired as floor manager for a little cooking show aired by Boston education channel WGBH. The show was called The French Chef, and the chef, of course, was Julia Child. Julia was an imposing figure. At six feet two inches, she was taller than I was, but it was her passion that wowed me. She loved the food that she’d discovered in Europe and wanted all of America to share her discovery.

On my first day I was naturally nervous but resolved not to let her see it. That was no easy task, as I was positioned twelve feet in front of her. During that first taping, I heard the voice of Russ Morash, our director, loudly through my headset: “Tell her she’s sweating, Paul.” I quickly thought about the various ways of putting this tricky, personal, potentially embarrassing matter to her; then I wrote one word on a large paper pad and held it up for her to see: PERS-PIR-A-TION. A moment later she casually mopped her brow with a dishcloth, and I thought to myself, Whew, I got that right.

As the show ended, I counted her down with my fingers: 5 …4 …3 …2 …out. She was laughing and happy. The show worked; the food looked great. She walked up to me, engulfed me in that large frame with a hug, and said with a laugh in her voice. “Paul, where I come from, they call it a sweat!”


 Folks, when you’re in the kitchen tomorrow, and you’re afraid the turkey’s too well done, or Grandma won’t be impressed with your take on her famous sweet potato casserole, my advice is: don’t sweat it! Just be grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by loved ones. And remember, if you find yourself acting a little stir-crazy, you could always gather up all your visiting relatives and bring them to the circus! Happy Thanksgiving!

Dec 192011

My mother loved a parade!  She specifically loved the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which has been a NYC institution since 1924.

In 1946, one month after my fourth birthday, my mother put a nickel in the subway turnstile, I walked under it and we traveled from our home in Brooklyn to Manhattan to see the parade — and to this day, I still remember my head swimming with excitement as we rode the subway to the parade route. By the time we arrived, the crowd was at least five deep and impossible for a four-year-old who fit under the turnstile to see what was happening.  Undaunted, my Brooklyn mother had an inspiration and turned to the tallest man she could find in the crowd, a perfect stranger, and asked if her son could sit on his shoulders.  What a wonderful man, I must have ridden on his shoulders for more than an hour that day. The parade was so exhilarating, for years, I could name — in order of appearance, every band and balloon character I saw that day.

Miracle on 34th Street - Paul on shoulders

Screen-grab from Miracle on 34th Street: Edmund Gwenn, a.k.a. Kris Kringle in beard and hat; Paul Binder, above.

Six months later, I went to the Loews 46th Street Theater in Brooklyn — the locals call it da Low eez — with my mother and my sister to see the movie Miracle On 34th Street, starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and a seven year old Natalie Wood. The movie had scarcely begun when my mother shot-up out of her seat, pointed at the screen and shouted, “Its Paul! That’s my boy Paul!”
And, sure enough, there I was, at the parade, on the shoulders of that wonderful stranger, preserved for the ages in film history.

The fella in the front is the star of the film Edmund Gwenn, Kris Kringle. The kid up above him, with the ear flaps?  Me.  Looking back, not realizing it then, show business, or more specifically, the business of people was my destiny.


2010 Thanksgiving Day Parade: with Michael Christensen & entering Times Square

2011 Thanksgiving Day Parade: Paul with some of the “Dream Big” cast. On the wagon, left to right, Jenny Vidbel, Jenna Robinson, and Muriel Bruggeman. The wagon is supplied by the Circus World Museum in Baraboo Wisconsin as an authentic Bandwagon, circa 1903, and drawn by 6 percheron horses form upstate NY.

Jan 052011

Sandi Ippolito writes:

Mr. Paul

Hello. Happy NEW YEARS! On a episode of “Circus” you said a great quote by Walter Cronkite, but I was unable to find it online. I re watched all the episodes on PBS.org but could not locate the clip. The quote was something like, “It’s been a season of all seasons…events of our lives?…” I think it was either in episode 5 or 6 in NY. I would really love to know the full quote. I really appreciate your time.

Sandi Ippolito
Los Angeles, Calif.

Here’s my answer:


Thanks for the inquiry.  The quote that I was paraphrasing was from an early live TV show on CBS, “You Are There.”  “It was a day like all days, filled with the events that alter and illuminate our times and…you were there.”  It became: “It was a season like all seasons, filled with the events that alter and illuminate our times and…you were there.”

I hope you enjoyed the documentary series.


Sandi confirmed that she did indeed enjoy it.

Walter Cronkite was a regular at the Big Apple Circus.  His first visit stands out.  He was sitting in a box seat with his family and there was a great deal of backstage buzz…”Walter Cronkite is here….”  Katja Schumann, who was from Denmark and had grown up in the Circus Building in Copenhagen, not in the USA asked: “Who is Walter Cronkite?”  I explained that he was called the “most trusted man in America.”

I told her that he had delivered the evening news every weekday night and anchored many major news events, probably  The most joyous and exciting was live camera coverage of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, the saddest, the death of President Kennedy. I took Katja to the side curtain and pointed him out

“Oh, that man” she said, “I  know him, he always came to the building in Copenhagen with John Ringling North.”

Walter Cronkite confirmed what Katja had said when he came backstage after the show and greeted her like he was her favorite uncle. After all he had watched her grow up.

Dec 022010

A fan wrote recently and asked a question that is very central to circus performance:

Dear Mr. Paul,
I have been a long time fan of yours and Big Apple Circus.  I was fascinated by the PBS series “Circus” and was surprised by your reaction to the safety issue with the horse vaulting tricks (first episode).  Can you explain why you are so strict about the artists using the harness when they don’t want to?
Thank you,
Jennifer, NJ

Thanks for asking Jennifer.

Safety must always be the first priority. Circus performers place a premium on safety. They’re artists, not daredevils. They don’t perform a feat once and go on to the next stunt – they repeat their performance, as Francis Brunn once said, “at 8:20 every night.” There’s some risk built into any extraordinary feat, but circus performers look to make that risk as small as possible. But they’re also supremely confident people. They have to be. You can’t throw a triple somersault without complete faith in your ability, without total commitment to the moment. And that’s where the real danger in circus performance lies: in the tension between confidence in one’s abilities and the need to reduce risk. In my years with the circus I’ve seen how performers can sometimes let that faith in their abilities trump their ingrained need for safety, and I eventually came to understand that part of my job (the job of any director) is to spot those occasions and head them off.

Also, the first rule of engagement for the film makers was as follows: “There will be people training for an act involving vaulting on horseback. NEVER approach with a camera when there are animals in the ring. Horses, particularly inexperienced ones, are spooked by any approach, especially if it involves a large object like a camera.”

Acrobats who don’t have years of experience working with horses are at particular risk, not realizing that it is not only their ability that is being tested, but that they are working with another sentient being, with a mind of its own. And in this particular case an animal that runs away from anything alien or the least bit threatening.

Imagine how I felt, then, when I walked into the tent one morning to find not just a camera crew ignoring that first rule, but a performer brazenly putting himself at risk. What I saw was this: a company member without a safety belt on a horse circling the ring, and a camera crew advancing toward that horse.

Quite simply, I lost it. My temper is usually as close by as my laughter, and this appalling breach of safety, not just by outsiders by one of our own, enraged me.

With a furious outburst, I stopped the camera crew. Then I stormed into the ring and halted the action. I glared at the company member, who had been on horseback without a safety belt, then at Christine Zerbini, the horse trainer standing in the middle of the ring with a long whip. “ALL OF YOU INTO MY OFFICE IMMEDIATELY!” I shouted.

Christine, afraid that the horse would interpret my roar as intended for him, tried to quiet me down.

“SHUT UP! I yelled, misunderstanding her intent, and stomped out of the tent towards the office that had been set up for the film’s producers. There, I told them that I didn’t care that we had a contract with them – that I’d tear it up if this blatant disregard for the rules continued.

If my anger didn’t get their attention, that certainly did.

The company artists who had flouted the rules were next, and I let them have it with an anger that was nearly uncontrollable. Over the years I’d seen overconfidence or inattention lead to some perilous situations – in two cases to serious incidents, one of which led to a performer being paralyzed – and I wasn’t going to let it happen again, not on my watch.

Soon my temper cooled, if not my indignation, and I sought out Christine and apologized for my insult to her. For a few days everyone seemed to walk on eggshells around me, and I regretted having caused such an ugly scene. But ugly though it had been, I’d gotten the message across.

The film crews behaved, as did the company, and I kept one eye on them – and another on my volatile temper.

“CIRCUS” turned out to be an excellent film.  I’m glad I didn’t have to tear up our contract with the production company, because they were able to capture what I’d wanted to see for so long: the moment the trick is made. Thanks to the latest camera technology, slow motion, Steadi-Cam, and the talent of great camera people, I’ve seen that moment – as Alex Cortes turned the triple somersault on the flying trapeze, Anna of the Rodion Troupe completed the double-double on the russian barre, and Sarah Schwarz executed her straddle leap on the tight wire.

These are awesome sights.


Nov 232010

On November 3rd PBS launched its documentary series “Circus”, and the viewing is not over!  If you missed six hours of broadcast over the last three weeks, watch the on-line streaming.

Episode 1: First of May
Episode 2: One Ring Family
Episode 3: Change On!
Episode 4: Survival of the Fittest
Episode 5: Born to be Circus
Episode 6: Down the Road