Friday, March 26, 2010

Circus Kirk: The Show

The final installment of Joel Hannah's memoir about his two summers as a rigger with Circus Kirk. Like the high school kids who helped get Chandler back on its feet, Joel threw himself into the experience—working hard, playing hard, and learning a lot about life. The illustration above is from The Elephant Who Dreamed of Becoming a Ballerina, written and illustrated by Patrick "Tex" Texier, our resident cartoonist. The book is due out later this spring.

The show consisted of several short acts which kept us riggers busy pulling ropes and moving props. The traditional fare of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns moved the show along at a quick pace and the live band's circus music was always well-received. An elderly gentleman who lived near one of the lots had heard the afternoon performance and came to the evening show "just to see the band that had played a tune I hadn't heard since my childhood." This was the kind of response that made the day worthwhile. Large audiences were more fun. Nothing is more appreciated by a a circus performer than clapping and whistling during their act. Shows were much better and livelier when the performers are motivated by the crowd noise and smiles on children's faces. In contrast, poorly attended shows resulted in sloppy performances and dull attitudes.

Most of the acts were created out of the imagination of the performers. Not being professionals, the spirit, effort, and ability exhibited by these ordinary college students was no less than extraordinary. Acts of strength and determination stick in my mind. One individual learned to walk a high wire to the top of the tent, gradually moving further and further up the incline before falling. Only a small foam pad was available for catching him, and this was eventually removed. One of my fellow riggers, who learned to use a unicycle for a ladder, was given his own act; surprising everyone with his ability to balance on and jump over various props. The show was a series of personal abilities and efforts packaged into a cohesive group effort.

The whole experience occupies a special place in my heart despite the shortcomings: two summers of extremely hard work with little pay ($50 a week), terrible living conditions, and physical ailments to remind me as well: a vertebrae damaged after having a tent pole fall on it, a knee that acts up in wet weather due to a shot it took from an acrobat bouncing off of a trampoline. It's okay, a small price to pay for this kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Two years ago there was a reunion for members of the exclusive club of Circus Kirk workers over its ten-year history. Why yes, even "Doc" himself would be there to "make sure everything went on schedule." But traveling to Pennsylvania is not now as easy as it once was, and I settled for sending in a "where are you now" form. Memories of people and places flooded back to me.

Then there was the Fourth of July parade in Randolph last year, an annual event for my family. I had heard that the circus was in town but paid little attention to people's remarks. It wasn't THE circus. I could never go back to Circus Kirk and wasn't about to go to some former competitor (we do go to see the Big Apple Circus every year, though, which reminds me of our little show) and kept my mouth shut.

While standing on the cubside watching the parade, I was surprised when the sound of circus music floated down the street. An elephant rounded the corner and approached. Boy, it sure did look familiar. No, I thought to myself, this is silly.

And then I saw him. "Frank!" I yelled to the astonishment of those around me. An elderly man dressed as a ringmaster stopped waving, turned around and caught my eye. It was the ticket master who had hired me so many years ago. "Come to the show tonight, Joel," he shouted. "Maybe we can sign you on." He turned back to wave to the crowd as I stood dumfounded, not knowing what to do.


flcurch said...

i was on circus kirk as trumpet player, band leader and big top crw from 1974 thru 1978 Fred Curchoe Williamsport, Pa

Joel said...

Hi Fred, nice to hear from you. We had some good times! The band was the best. Did you see the "Feeding the Circus" entry? You must have been there.

Do you have any stories to share?

Best wishes , Joel