Behind the BIG TOP. Offstage, circus life is keyed to hard work and strong family ties
Philadelphia — For Wade Burck's two sons, the backyard is a cement lot behind an urban stadium; the playground is the metal slide of a hay bin; and there's no grass. Mr. Burck is a tiger trainer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. A young single parent, he lives in a trailer with his two sons.
For families like Burck's, life in the circus means hours of grimy, dedicated practice combined with a few moments performing in a ring filled with loud music, flashing lights, and oohing children. Quarters are small, travel frequent, traditional schools far away. But the families adjust -- even thrive, say some performers.
``A normal person can raise children in any situation and raise a normal child,'' says Burck, who has a blunt North Dakota honesty about him. ``The adventure is getting to see so much. I never saw New York City till I was 27. My sons have been there twice.'' Just in from the ring, Burck is still clad in his red-and-gold circus costume. Five-year-old Eric has just taken one of the family dogs for a walk around the animal cages, ice-cream trucks, and flipping acrobats.
While other performers in the opulent Ringling Bros. live in cramped quarters on the mile-long circus train, Burck chose the extra space and privacy of trailer life.
At the small, European-style Big Apple Circus, which just finished a two-week stay in Boston, life in trailers is the norm, with a couple dozen of them, from a small silver Air Stream to a 40-foot beauty, lined up in rows.
In the early days of the circus, which started in 1770 in England, large families traveled in rugged wagons with few conveniences. Today, some of the trailers come equipped with microwaves, VCRs, dishwashers, and separate bedrooms. The performers don't seem to mind the life -- at least the shorter ones don't. Although cramped, the trailers are as efficiently used as a ship's galley, and by necessity they are neat as a pin.
``I think the trailer makes a big difference because it's like taking your own little apartment with you,'' says Keri Gaona, wife of one of the trapeze artists in the Flying Gaonas, in their trailer with a crib in the living room for baby Alex, and a fluffy Persian cat getting into things. ``Wherever we can put the trailer is our home. Actually, the whole circus stays in the same spot and the towns go by.''
Performers are proficient at battening down the hatches for their weekly moves. ``The lamp goes on the sofa, the chairs fold down, the TV comes down, the refrigerator gets locked, and the dishes get protected,'' says Mrs. Gaona.
Burck and his sons traveled 47,000 miles in the last two years with the 116-year-old Ringling Bros. With that kind of time spent on the road, and no vacations to speak of, circus performers make their trailers as homelike as possible. Paintings and photos of tigers are displayed on the kitchen counter of Burck's trailer; cattle skins are draped over the sides of the couch; and the book ``Gorillas in the Mist'' sits on top of the color TV.
The boys have their own room, complete with bunk beds and cages for a turtle, a snake, and two parakeets.
It takes a little ingenuity to adapt a trailer for children. Katja Shumann, who's married to Big Apple ringmaster Paul Binder, built a ``nursery'' out of a closet for 11-month-old Katherine. It is five scant inches away from the parents' bed.
Getting children on a regular schedule for eating and sleeping is difficult, parents say, since show times change daily and the circus moves so frequently.
``Tisha Marie is 21 months now and we just now have her on a permanent feeding schedule,'' says Jim Tinsman, who does a handstand act with Big Apple. His wife, Tisha, is an aerialist. Tisha Marie, nicknamed ``Little,'' is a delicate china doll who seems perfectly suited for the frilly white pinafores her mother likes to dress her in.
So what are the benefits of circus life in return for the sacrifices? Parents say it's the amount of time they get to spend with their children. Many of the acts are under 15 minutes long, and performers do two or three a day. So free time is spent sightseeing and visiting amusement parks. ``No other profession can I think of where you get to be with the child 24 hours a day,'' Mrs. Gaona says.
As part of the daily exercise routine with the horses, Ms. Shumann loads Katherine into a backpack and takes her right in the ring, with six horses thundering around them. Suddenly one bolts out of line and veers toward them -- but neither mother nor daughter flinches. With a flick of the whip and a terse German command, Shumann snaps the horse back in line. Katherine Rose coos.
Performers get to spend a lot of time with each other, too. Socializing among circus performers centers around the barbecues. Every trailer has one, and when the performers hit a new town the first thing they do is set up the barbecues, card tables, and chairs.
For the Santini brothers, the whole circus acts as a family. ``We all take care of Michael,'' says Bernaldo, referring to his nine-year-old brother who performs with him in the King Charles Troupe with Ringling Bros. The troupe of young unicycle riders who whiz tightly around each other shooting baskets has its own softball team and plays other teams in the circus.
There are boring and lonely times, too. During several days of solid rain at the Big Apple's recent stand in Boston, one little boy rode his bike disconsolately through the mud. An unmarried performer lamented that being on the road so much, he was never able to date anyone. And the close quarters can seem like a fishbowl, with little privacy.
Circus parents, like any others, say they're concerned about keeping their teen-agers on the straight and narrow. Good relations between children and parents become especially critical when the family performs together and has a reputation at stake.
Many of the longtime circus families have an almost feudal-style moral code, says Shumann. They are often so restrictive that the teen-agers ``run off and marry the greengrocer just to avoid the tyranny.''
But the parents of Sandrine Suskow, a self-possessed 12-year-old working in her family's exotic-animal act for Ringling Bros., say they don't worry about her. ``She knows about staying away from drugs and that sort of thing,'' says her father, Daniel, adding that they're careful about the men they choose to work with them.
Sandrine, who plans to continue the family's four-generation business, is studying from two correspondence courses, French and English. Education is a dilemma for these children constantly on the road. Some families split up during the academic year so their children can attend a regular school. Several Big Apple parents say they're struggling over whether to put their children in private schools, teach them themselves, or hire a tutor.
``In Circus Knie, in Switzerland, we had a trailer on a wooden wagon that transformed into a school,'' recalls David Dimitri, a blond, 23-year-old Swiss wire walker with the Big Apple. ``Our teacher had to take care of nine grades -- nine children.'' His trailer is equipped with a personal computer, so he can continue learning.
Bernaldo Santini says he couldn't wait for his brother Michael to grow up so that he could rescue him from New York's Harlem district and put him in the circus. ``The environment in the city is not good for young kids,'' he says. ``It's much better here.''
The circus, however, has its own dangers. Burck has a scar down the side of his face from one of the 15 tigers he trains to jump through hoops and stand on their back legs. Trapeze artist Chela Gaona did not fly through the air with the greatest of ease one day, and injured herself falling on the net wrong. Shumann did fly through the air when her one of her horses took a tumble. ``He and I parted company. Fast,'' she recalls blithely. Like many circus performers, she seems unconcerned about the danger. When pregnant, she did ``a little less.''
But performers' faces reveal moments of tension when a family member is performing.
Several of the Gaonas watch intently with frozen smiles as youngest brother Richie prepares to somersault three times before being caught by his brother Armando. As the yellow-clad performer flashes by successfully, the smiles relax and become radiant. It's a momentary close-up of family life, circus-style.