Michael Christensen’s Great Adventure Vol. VIII, No. 8

 

ANNIE AND PIERRE’S NOUVEAU CIRQUE DE PARIS

In the spring of 1976, Annie Fratellini and Pierre Etaix successfully mounted their circus in Paris and invited us to join them. Paul immediately contacted me in Seattle where I was completing a season with the Seattle Repertory Theater. I flew to New York and we honed our act in Washington Square Park. Then, Paris bound. We rendezvoused with the show in Bobigny, a Paris suburb. When we arrived, people were erecting the small, green canvas tent. It had recently rained and everyone was filthy. “Look, Paul. French mud pies.”

Nervous and excited the first time in the ring, we blazed through our eight-minute, razzmatazz, terrace, Casino de Paris, street act and were a hit. In show business speak, we killed ‘em! As we ran towards the red velour curtains of the entrée des artistes, the ringmaster stopped us: “Triumph! Triumph,” he kept shouting. The French audiences embraced us and we loved our new home, especially our 42-foot diameter circular living room, ideal to create the perfect balance of forces necessary for an acrobat or ballerina to stand atop a galloping horse. Yes, horses in the house and a mixture of dirt and sawdust on the floor to cushion their feet. We shared our living room with many other people but we didn’t mind–they were magical. Magical jumping people, magical flying people, magical balancing people, magical musical people and magical, magical people. Oh, and there were a couple of magical throwing-things-back-and-forth-and-talking-at-the-same-time-to-make-people-laugh people… us! And twice a day, 900-1,000 entertain-me-please people dropped by to laugh and enjoy themselves. It was a great home, one that emanated from the hearts of two clowns, Annie and Pierre, the classical European one-ring circus, the Nouveau Cirque de Paris.

“Do you believe it, Paul? We’re in a circus.”

“Yes, Michael, I believe it.”

 

Our orchestra was modest: two musicians, a short, fat organist and a tall, skinny drummer. One afternoon, the organist arrived for the matinee completely smashed. Pierre Étaix, adorned in a full sequined costume and exquisite make up, was now a very pissed off White Face Clown. A ladder led to the band platform and our feeling-no-pain organist lost his balance halfway to the top. Fortunately, the drummer and Pierre caught him and with the assistance of several members of the crew, pushed him the rest of the way to his musical perch, definitely a cartoon image. The show finally began but needless to say, the music that day was infused with the sound and color of Beaujolais or possibly Pastis. We were starring in a Fellini movie.

In October 1976, Paul Binder celebrated his 34th birthday in his loft on Lispenard and Broadway in Manhattan. During the party, Paul revealed his circus dream to his friends. They smiled. One in particular, Richard Levy, a closet juggler, immediately brought organizational and financial clarity. While Paul was in Paris with me finishing the holiday season with the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, Richard contacted another friend, Carol Brightman, and together they began creating the first formal proposal, a document for fundraising and cultivating support from businesses, city and state agencies. Richard was unstoppable. He generated money, he organized, he scheduled presentations and even offered his home as security for a loan for this wild idea.

He was also unstoppable as a driver of a motor vehicle. Decades later, I vividly recall the car ride from a mid-town television studio where Paul and I had completed filming a juggling sequence, to LaGuardia International Airport for a flight to South America for another job. The session had run long and it was possible we would miss the plane. “Don’t worry; I’ll get you there in time,” Richard assured us. He had promised to drive us to the airport in time for the flight; he didn’t promise we would arrive alive. He drove as if he were qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. I closed my eyes, prayed and peed my pants. Unstoppable. When Paul and I touched U.S. terra firma from South America, we didn’t call Richard–we hired a taxi.

A good idea has a life of its own. It ripples across time and space and when it strikes a surface, its reflection creates a pattern of joyous, spiritual intersections. Right people appear at right times. Right conversations progress. Creating a one-ring circus for New York City was a good idea. However, nothing was guaranteed. Many more people would need to smile before this idea became a reality, no matter how good it was.

We weren’t officially called The Big Apple Circus; we didn’t have a name. However, we knew with absolute certainty that our circus must embody the highest artistic standards. Also, the smiles and gratitude of the children on the piazza in Naples had affected us more deeply than Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book, or any theoretical/political concepts. We founded our circus as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to serving the communities in which we performed.

One joyous intersection: Con Edison became our first corporate sponsor with a grant of $25,000 to support performances for children from poor neighborhoods. This fit perfectly with our philosophy and this seed eventually matured into our Big Apple Circus Ticket Fund and Circus for All.

Right conversations progressed: Maggie Heimann, an energetic and enthusiastic circus convert, introduced Paul to William Woodward, a prominent civic leader. Mr. Woodward attended a rehearsal at our Spring Street Studio and invited two people he had recently met at a party, the late Alan Slifka and his wife, Virginia. After experiencing the Spring Street event, reading our proposal, viewing our slide show and hearing Paul’s impassioned pitch, they committed their hearts, their spirits and their checkbooks. Maggie, William and Alan became founding board members.

Field of Dreams is a 1989 movie about an Iowa corn farmer who hears a voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” He interprets this as an instruction to construct a baseball diamond in his fields. After he does, Shoeless Joe Jackson and other dead baseball players emerge from the cornfields to play ball and to help him fulfill a dream. Before Paul and I had even built the Big Apple Circus ring, they came, no, not dead circus clowns rising from New York City subway stations but live circus artists, teachers, street performers, musicians, administrators, businesspeople, visual artists, riggers and many ordinary folk. They emerged from the vitality and diversity of New York City. Paul stated it very clearly, “There’s a reason why everyone was drawn or came to the Big Apple Circus-to find something of themselves they couldn’t find without it.”

Karen Gersch was an artist and juggling student of Hovey Burgess. I’m convinced that all juggling roads lead to Hovey. She lived in a loft and was active in a New York network of street artists and aspiring circus performers. More importantly, she had connected with two Russians from the Moscow State Circus, Gregory Fedin and Nina Krasavina, who ran a school in New Jersey and embodied multiple skills, including acrobatics and clowning. The good idea also attracted Michael Moschen, a young and innovative juggler; Paul Lubera, a flamboyant trapeze artist; Suzanne Perry, secretary by day, aerialist by anytime she could; Los Indianos, an energetic Argentine sabateo dance troupe whom we met in Paris; a handful of students from Charles Evans Hugh’s High School in the Bronx, who practiced acrobatics at the YMCA; Warren Bacon, experienced circus performer who had lost faith in the American three-ring extravaganza; New York visual artists Louisa Chase and Mimi Grooms. They came. Even a former acting colleague from the University of Washington Professional Actor Training Program in Seattle, Tom Spiller, became a bottom man in an acrobatic formation. The artistic ingredients of our circus soup were tasty.

It was spring 1977 and Paul set the Fourth of July as the date for the opening of the Big Apple Circus. We didn’t realize it but by committing to that, we had boarded a thrill ride, the Big Apple Circus roller coaster, without seat belts. The ascent began and we immediately scored an ideal performance site at the southern tip of Manhattan: Battery Park, spacious, grassy lawn, easily accessible by subways, perfect. We were poised at the top of the first hill, elated. One month before our hopeful opening, the city exchanged the grassy green of Battery Park for the sand, gravel and garbage of a landfill along the shores of the Hudson River: Battery Park City. Down we dropped, screaming.

Michael Davidson, our production manager, secured necessary permits, authorizations and insurance documents for the new site. He accomplished the bureaucratic impossible and a few days later, he drove a rental truck containing the circus ring, all necessary permits, show tickets, box-office materials and equipment to Battery Park City. We stood outside the chain link fence with a city official, anticipating the moment he would open the padlock and at last, grant us access to our garbage-laden field of dreams. It jammed. After several spirited attempts to free it, employing various key acrobatics, we opted for a more direct approach, a heavy-duty bolt cutter. The gates parted and we claimed the promised land. We were high. Quick, get the truck! Oh, no, it’s been stolen. Down again. Our field of dreams was a nightmare. The next day, police found the truck on East 47th Street where a drunk had abandoned it after joyriding. Nothing had been taken. Yes!

Modeled after the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, we designed a big top and commissioned a company in the Bronx to fabricate it. “Time to get our tent!” We were exhilarated; up we climbed. At their office, we discovered they had sent the canvas to Boston to be stitched; only the poles were completed. Did I say we were up? Hold on. Sorry, we were down.

July 4th, no opening and definitely no fireworks for us, and wait a minute, “What do you mean no payroll?” Help! Alan Slifka to the rescue. July 5, 6, 7, 8, still no tent. Finally, at 5:30 a.m. on July 9th, it arrived. Up. The ring and support masts were already in place. Up, up. Later that morning, everyone joined us to erect the Big Apple Circus Big Top. Up, up, up went the canvas but not far; it was five feet too small all around. Spirits plummeted, rock bottom. We were physically, emotionally and spiritually drained and if we didn’t mount that tent soon and perform a show to paying customers, we would be financially exhausted as well…and Leonard, Paul and I would be working the streets.

Philippe Petite was adept at equestrianism, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing and bullfighting. He was an accomplished close-up magician and a juggler extraordinaire. He was as comfortable riding a unicycle as he was walking and his street act was as entertaining as ours, well, almost. In 1971, he strung a high wire between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and crossed it. In 1973, he fastened another at the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia and traversed that. On the morning of August 7, 1974, while Paul and I were performing on the Kärtner Straße in Vienna, Philippe Petite stepped onto his one-inch steel cable he had suspended 1,350 feet above the city between the two towers of the New York World Trade Center.

Clearly, Philippe Petite was a master rigger, a talented mechanical engineer. These were the skills upon which his life depended, his ability to suspend and secure wires and cables. For us, he was another joyous intersection of the good idea. As our supportive colleague, he now focused on a task far less lofty than the WTC. How would he fasten a large section of green canvas that was five feet too short, onto four, 50-foot metal masts without readjusting them? Within a few days, with the assistance of many hands, he succeeded. With the administrative support of Jill Kershenbaum and an innovative bleacher installation from Rob Libbon, The Big Apple Circus Big Top stood for the first time on the landfill in the shadow of those twin towers. Everyone sighed. The roller coaster had stopped, at least for the moment.

On July 18, 1977, in a green, 900-seat canvas tent, with a small band of local musicians, a cast of artists drawn from Manhattan and circuses from North and South America and Russia, Paul and I performed our act. Our juggling clubs whizzed, our hats sailed, our mouths flapped and once again, Leonard risked his life with his Leap of Death. But this time, it felt different. We were in our own ring, in our own circus. We were really home.

STUBS AND MR. PAUL

I never wanted to be a clown, never. In fact, as a child, I thought they were creepy. Even when I watched Annie Fratellini and Pierre Étaix perform in the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, two of the most vulnerable and human artists I had ever seen, I was quite content to remain a trained, professional actor- Michael- of the comedy-juggling act “Michael and Paul.” In the first season of the Big Apple Circus, Nina Krasavina and Gregory Fedin covered the funny business as Nickle and Freckle. They were also instructors of our New York School for Circus Arts and performed an awesome acrobatic number. Nina sustained a one-arm handstand atop a 10-foot metal pole that Gregory balanced on his forehead while climbing another larger diameter, 15-foot metal pole. Russian toes touched the Big Top top!

During that first season of the Big Apple Circus in 1977, the Village Voice ran an article about our show and mentioned the “two men who juggle chickens.” The next day, uniformed representatives from the S.P.C.A. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) appeared at the circus and demanded to see the chicken jugglers. Paul met them, brought them to me and asked me to show them our chicken. I opened the suitcase and produced Leonard. “Oh!” they said, “It’s a rubber chicken.” I guess we were lucky they didn’t report us to the S.P.C.R.A. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Rubber Animals.)

The second season, Nina and Gregory retired Nickle and Freckle from the program so Paul and I filled the clown void. No big deal, there was a job to be done and we did it. We could execute our juggling act as clowns, no problem. We wore rather generic costumes and makeup and rehearsed a few classical routines we had learned over the years. We fulfilled the needs of the show.

In 1980, a sharp lawyer who had worked in the office of Mayor Ed Koch, Judith Friedlander, fell under the Big Apple Circus spell and became our Executive Director. I didn’t know Judith well but am forever grateful to her. She made the deal of the century, securing an ideal location for the Big Apple Circus in Damrosch Park, between the Metropolitan Opera and the New York State Theatre, (today the David H. Koch Theater) in the heart of Lincoln Center, the cultural bull’s eye of New York and the United States. There, on December 4, 1981, we opened our first Holiday Season. Our humble, 900-seat, green canvas tent sitting on a New York City landfill four years earlier had transformed into a stunning 1,700 seat Italian Big Top erected at New York’s most prestigious cultural icon! Playing Lincoln Center was a turning point. That season spring-boarded us into performance venues all along the East Coast. Our little circus was doing big things and in 1983 we received an OBIE Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theatre.

For our first Lincoln Center engagement, as befitted this distinguished venue, Paul and I framed our work into the European mode. I became the suave, poetic, graceful White Face, high status, the Pierre Étaix of the team, if you will, and Paul was the open, naïve, trusting Auguste, low status, the Annie Fratellini. Many comedy teams such as the Smothers Brothers, Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, utilized the dynamic of these 2 historical, circus clown archetypes. Paul was excellent as the Auguste and I was utterly uncomfortable as the White Face; I felt trapped in a mask I couldn’t support. My technique as a trained actor enabled me to create a workable character for the situation but it afforded me little pleasure. Actually, I hated it. When we toured that summer, I chose another model, one that Emmet Kelly had made famous in the forties and fifties with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, the purely American hobo, Weary Willy. I applied the makeup, donned tattered clothes from a thrift store, waddled into the ring and people laughed; home again.

I needed a name. Since I wore a greasepaint beard, initially, I was Mr. Stubbly. I experimented with this for a few performances but it was too awkward for rapid dialogue with Paul. I shortened it to Mr. Stubbles, then, simply Mr. Stubs. At first, instead of wearing a fake nose, I reddened my own with makeup. On one of my trips to Gorden’s Novelty Store on 29th Street, I spotted an interesting rubber schnoz, which I altered and with which I felt comfortable. Ah, my face was taking shape. That summer, I became Mr. Stubs, a hobo-clown, and Paul became Mr. Paul, the ringmaster.

We strengthened our clowning department with three excellent artists: Carlo Pellegrini, a beautiful White Face, known in the ring as Mr. Carlo. He had ring-mastered the show the second season and we had also worked together in Popeye, in which Carlo played Swifty, the cook in the Roughhouse Café. Jeff Gordon, a fall-down-go-boom extremely physical comedian who had graduated from Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College, Mr. Gordoon (known to my children as Uncle Love), and Barry Lubin, also a Clown College grad, completed the team with his feisty, irreverent character, Grandma. Grandma would become a Big Apple Circus icon. As a naïve, bumbling Auguste, Paul was splendid. As Mr. Paul, the ringmaster, he was unequaled. Poised and charming, completely at ease in his Big Apple Circus living room, he was the ideal authority figure for his rascally clown children, firm but never mean. With Mr. Paul as our ringmaster, our straight man, our anchor, we created what many people consider the Golden Age of Big Apple Circus Clowning (1983-1987).

During that first summer tour, we presented a routine entitled The Making of Rocky 18. Hollywood had produced so many Rocky movies we decided to parody them. As part of the piece, we invited a child from the audience into the ring for “training.” Mr. Carlo said, “Hey kid, you gotta havva stronga legs like a Mr. Stubs,” at which point, I lifted my trousers and exposed my legs. Small laugh. I decided to surprise the clowns. My wife, Karyn, who was now the costume mistress for the show, transformed a pair of flesh-colored tights into knee-high stockings. With a hot-glue gun, she completely covered them with dozens of short strands of brown yarn. They were deliciously ugly. I wore them for the next performance and didn’t tell the other clowns. “Hey kid, you gotta havva stronga legs like a Mr. Stubs.”  I raised my pants, revealing legs from which an assortment of wiry, dark hairs had sprouted. Huge laugh. Mr. Carlo fell face down onto the carpet and didn’t recover for several seconds. Years later, in an interview, Joan Rivers commented, “You look like a man who uses Nair badly.”

Mr. Stubs had a name, a nose, and now, signature hairy legs. For the next few years, I continued to refine and integrate the costume and makeup. No, I never wanted to be a clown. I had never thought about being a clown; it happened. Mr. Stubs arrived. Mr. Paul featured a dapper red tailcoat; Mr. Stubs wore rags. Mr. Paul sported shiny black boots; Mr. Stub’s shoes had holes in his shoes. Mr. Paul was grounded and logical; Mr. Stubs insisted there were butterflies in the circus. Mr. Stubs and Mr. Paul, the roles in which we remained for our entire Big Apple Circus careers.