It’s Christmastime. A family is gathered, dressed to the nines, taking photos in front of the fountain at the Lincoln Center. Is this a classic New York Christmas, two parents taking their young daughters to see The Nutcracker? No, it’s my mom, my dad, my 20 year-old sister, and me. It was yesterday. My mom is eating a falafel sandwich, and we’re about to go to the circus.
It’s the Big Apple Circus to be exact. My parents are in town to move my sister out of her dorm before she goes abroad next semester and drive us both home. It just so happens that one my dad’s friend from high school, John Kennedy Kane, is the Ringmaster in “Legendarium”, the Big Apple Circus’s 35th Anniversary spectacular.
Kane has been known as “Circ” (short for Circus Man) by family and friends since he was just a kid, performing one-man shows in the basement of his childhood home.
His longtime love for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey shows has come full circle. After clowning around as characters such as Eggroll, Salami Salami Bologna, and Kandy Kane “The World’s Largest Elf,” he’s made it to the big time, or well, the Big Top, performing alongside acrobats and animals alike.
I am not feeling well. Like a grandma, I am in a shawl, drinking hot tea, sucking on ginger candies. I enter the massive white tent, likely scaring the toddlers that run between my ankles. I have been sick since Thanksgiving with an unnamable illness that has kept my lymph node the size of a ping-pong ball, and has only been aggravated by a week-long jaunt in the library. I am unsure about much of this. I keep hearing things like, “Nanna has to go potty,” and “Take care of my Barbie.” Okay circus, I haven’t done this since I was nine. Let’s try it out.
We find our seats. The chair next to mine is empty. My mom says, “OOH Leah, your future husband is going to sit there!” The seat remained empty for the entire show.
The house lights fall, the spotlight flashes wildly, and voilà, there is Circ, the jolly, jovial, ruddy-cheeked Ringmaster in all his glory. His booming voice welcomes every member of the audience. The average age has to be ten. Every single kid is squealing.
While I didn’t want to be on my phone like some bratty preteen, I managed to take some notes on the show. So I will retroactively live-blog the circus. (Lived-blog? Dead-blog?):
I am definitely the oldest kid here. No big deal, I know the Ringmaster.
I just saw a man flip over a cow. The apocalypse can happen now, because I’ve lived to see a man flip over a gigantic cow named Muffin.
The trapeze artist making me hella nervous. He knows what he’s doing, but I am freaking out. [I find out later, the dude’s only done this for ONE year. I can’t even learn to knit in a year.]
There are six horses galloping inside a 42-ft ring, let’s see how this goes. [Surprisingly well.]
One horse bites another’s tail, both seem very upset but then get back to work.
AHH! A million Lil’ Sebastians come out into the ring! I am crying with joy.
Everything is weirdly sexualized by these faux-French clowns with huge fake “booties.” They are called the Acro-Buffos. [I originally thought they were called the Acro-Buttos. Because of their butts. I think their costumes were distracting me a little too much.]
AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION ALERT. DUCK AND COVER. Okay, it’s not me. However, the audience member is repeatedly spanking the female clown.
A contortionist comes out. I wish I looked like that in a body suit. She clamps on the a chin-rest with her mouth and then flips her entire body over her own head and holds the pose for a solid 45 seconds. I’m afraid she might rip herself apart.
Now I’m googling the amount of pressure that bones can withstand. She is doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It seriously looks like she is going to twist herself inside out. I am screaming. The mom in front of me can’t even bring herself to watch, she just only screams, “OUCH OUCH OUCH!”
While holding herself up by her chin, she bends her legs around and over her head.They bring out a bow and arrow and a balloon on a stand. I’m guessing she’s going to use her feet.
Yep, she used her feet. People are cheering like she just won The Hunger Games.
Wait, now there is a Hungarian “lady of the night” being solicited by three muscular men wearing tiny vests and not much else.
Oh, no, just kidding, They’re acrobats.
The chick is doing crazy flips off of and landing back on the guys’ intertwined wrists. I can’t help but think of what they’re thinking… “Dammit, Nastia Lukin, I was second runner-up.”
Ooh man, these dudes are super muscular. The should probably get bigger vests. Yeah, okay, you can keep winking at me.
The clowns have returned! The lady with the weird big bum can’t fit up the stairs. My 49-year-old mom joyfully voices what all other six-year-olds in the audience are thinking; “Her BUTT is too BIG!”
There’s another audience participation bit. My mom is jumping out of her seat while I crawl under mine. A young kid is chosen for a funny bit with the Buffos. The guy is teaching him how to flirt while the girl falls in love. When she tries to kiss him, he freaks out and runs back to his seat.
Circ introduces a “man on wire.” Slack wire. This is amazing, he balances himself the entire seven minutes of the act. His girlfriend comes out and hands him ladder, which he BALANCES ON WHILE BALANCING THE LADDER ON THE LITTLE STRING. I can’t stop screaming “WHAT?” Then he rode a unicycle across and I have a pulmonary embolism.
Alright, it’s intermission. Everyone scrambles for more popcorn. I take a Snapchat break and then write out more notes on my phone. My sister is studying for her chem lab final exam. Our parents seriously can’t even complain that we’re sitting on our phones because we’re both being responsible young adults.
Mom comes back from the concession stand with a juice box for my dad. He had asked for a beer but she didn’t have enough cash. We are all regressing back to childhood and loving it.
The show starts back up with the inventor of the Cyr Wheel. The dude’s spinning inside a massive hula-hoop, I worry the entire time that he’ll crush his fingers, but it’s rad none the less. The music is oddly sentimental, making it seem as he’s in love with his hoop. [I find out later that he basically is. It’s “like a person” to him.] The circus is cute and weird.
The horse trainer is back with… DOGS! Dogs leaping! Dogs comedically stealing food from an oblivious picnicker! Dogs riding scooters! The circus loves dogs, and hell, so do I.
Next, a woman on a couple of tulle scarves pulls herself up and flips around and it’s awesome. A stagehand puts a mattress under her, because, yeah, that would help if she fell 40 feet.
Now a French couple is tangoing while juggling. I guess that’s the way to seduce a woman. Very sexy stuff here folks. How does one become a juggler’s assistant?
When some puns about a fake head prop don’t go over so well, Circ improvs, “Come on folks, the world is about to end. You might as well laugh!” That goes over very well.
A husband and wife are suspended from bungee cords, performing an intimate little number called “The Desire of Flight.” I imagine that lots of parents will be asked a lot of questions when they take their kids home.
No wonder people love the circus, it is sexual. Like, whoa.
Finally, seven adorable Chinese chicks on bikes stand on the seat, jumping from one bike to another bike-rider’s shoulders, all to an obligatory cover of Britney Spear’s “Circus.”
Everyone comes out and takes their bows. That was so good. Standing ovation! Bravo!
After the audience clears out, Circ comes to meet us, still in full costume and makeup. He takes us backstage and shows us around. We meet the trapeze artist who is hanging out with the drummer’s family, talk to some of the crew members. Circ shows us his very impressive dressing room—a light-up vanity mirror behind a curtain.
We then all head back to meet the horses (!!!). They are very pretty but do not like having their photo taken. Further back behind these makeshift stables are where the cows, ahem, oxen Muffin and Buttercup, are kept. They are like two massive puppies that love Circ. He pets them and feeds them bagels. My mom even takes half of a bagel and feeds it to the cows. From her mouth. She belongs in the circus. I feed the cows bagels from my hands. Because it’s December 20th in New York City, so what else would I be doing?
Circ then takes us back to “Trailer Row,” where all of the cast and crew members live throughout the 134-show run. As the five of us sit in his trailer, he brags how he can see the Metropolitan Opera from his window. It is the side of the building, one foot away from his wall. We sit and talk about fellow Buffalonians living in New York, and our own Sandy experiences.
At one point, Circ invites over Menno, one half of the tangoing, juggling duo. He and his wife live in the trailer across the row with their six-month-old son, where he often invites his circus “family” to watch clips from his collection of circus films which he began accruing when he was only eight years old. Circ and Menno’s faces light up when talking about seeing the circus as young kids, and how much they still love it now.
I entered the Big Apple circus cranky and sick. I left skipping like a little kid. The circus is a place under a big tent with a lot of people, namely children, screaming as they watch other, very talented people, do death-defying stunts. When you’re young, you can’t imagine anyone doing those things. When you’re older, you can’t imagine yourself doing those things. And no matter how old you feel going into the show, you’re going to feel young at heart when you come out. The circus is scary. The circus is sort of sexy. The circus is goofy and fun. The circus is magical. Still.
And it’s a place where you get to see your dad’s friend from high school wear a lot of makeup.
[Image via, other photos courtesy of the author]