Michael Christensen’s Great Adventure, Part Three

CIRCUS LIFE FOR THE CHRISTENSENS

Michael and Karyn

When we started in 1977, I didn’t require a car or a living trailer; the circus site was easily accessible from anywhere in the city by subway. When we included the New York City boroughs, everyone rendezvoused at a west side coffee shop and Bill Conroy, our first company manager, chauffeured us to the tent. After the shows, he returned us to the coffee shop. From 101st and Amsterdam, Karyn and I had moved to 78th and Second Avenue and commuted to the tent either by company van or public transportation when appropriate, always boomeranging to the apartment after the show. This grew tiresome. We acquired a 17-foot Viking pop-up trailer that could remain near the tent, thus giving ourselves the option of sleeping on-site instead of traveling to the flat. With typical clown foresight, I had purchased a trailer before owning a vehicle with which to haul it. We bought a 1976 Chrysler Cordoba with a large V-8 engine and a very long wheelbase. The addition of a hitch, extra oil cooler and air shocks transformed it into an excellent towing vehicle.

As tours and family expanded so did our mobile living facilities. The 17-foot Viking pop-up morphed into a 23-foot Nomad into a 28-foot Cimarron into a 32-foot Fan and finally into a 38-foot Fleetwood with bunk beds and a front kitchen. A 1983, 6.2 liter, ¾ ton diesel GMC Suburban with a towing package replaced our hardworking Cordoba. Driving our rig late at night en route to the next town was enjoyable, Karyn next to me while the girls snuggled into their makeshift beds in the back of the Suburban. The company stayed in contact with each other on CB radios; Paul’s handle was “Top Hat” and I was “Stubs.”

Circus life at Lincoln Center during the winter presented interesting challenges. We opened our faucet at the kitchen sink slightly to prevent the incoming water line from freezing. It was equally important to keep the exterior drain hose free flowing, which we discovered the hard way. It froze and tap water filled the sink, eventually overflowing onto our carpet and beyond. Fine, I suppose, if we wanted to ice skate in the trailer. Wrapping the hose with electrical heat tape solved the problem. Sometimes, during an intense winter schedule, grocery stores delivered food directly to our caravan. When they asked for the address, we replied, “Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center; the guard will direct you to the Christensen trailer.”

Our Lincoln Center Big Top stood feet away from the Metropolitan Opera. Since there was dialogue in our shows, we utilized wireless microphones, as does the Met. One evening, wireless wires crossed and our audience enjoyed snatches of an aria as well as the sounds of a toilet flushing. I can only imagine to what magical circus sounds the Metropolitan Opera audience was treated! Ah, technology.

Space is extremely limited at Lincoln Center in Damrosch Park; living trailers butted against each other. Neighbors were close. One Christmas, Karyn and I decorated our home on wheels with Christmas lights. How festive. A few days later, in a conversation with Paul, he asked, “Michael, what were you and Karyn doing last night about midnight?”

“I don’t know. Sleeping, I suppose. Why?”

“Well, I was standing outside your trailer talking with one of the artists and suddenly we heard a strange rattling. We turned around and your Christmas lights were banging against the sides of your trailer.”

Those lights came down fast.

 

THE ONE-RING SCHOOL HOUSE AND PAUL NEWMAN

As Ivy approached her fifth birthday, Karyn and I faced the challenge of how she would receive her education. By this time, we had relocated from Manhattan to Bangor, Pennsylvania, a rural hamlet in the Slate Belt near the Delaware Water Gap, seventy-five miles east of the city. Friends, teachers and other circus employees agreed that whatever form we chose, we shouldn’t split the family.

The cultural diversity of the circus enriched our lives but Ivy needed structure; with this in mind, in 1985 I created ORSH, the One Ring School House. The idea was simple. We hired a certified teacher to travel with the show. Since the number of children was small, each received one-on-one attention. They also benefited from unique opportunities available in the various cities on our route. For example, during the Boston engagement, they walked the Freedom Trail, visited the New England Aquarium, Faneuil Hall and Fenway Park. In Reston, Virginia, they toured Washington D.C.’s museums and monuments. Of course, a variety of physical skills were also available to them within our community.

Between circus seasons, Karyn and I enrolled Ivy into the Pennsylvania school system in Bangor; instructors were supportive and to ensure that she kept in sync with her Pennsylvania classmates, they forwarded lessons to us on the road. Ivy, and later Kila, became exciting nomads during these years. While local students created pictures of cows, chickens and horses, our daughters drew images of sea lions, goats riding atop ponies and elephants sporting butterfly wings. Plus, their father was a clown. How exotic was that? I appeared as Mr. Stubs for a few local churches and Kila’s dance recitals. Once, when we were in the process of selling a house, at one of Ivy’s T-Ball games, Karyn overheard a man remark to his companion, “I see where the clown family’s house is up for sale,” a moniker we still retain.

Yep, we’re the Christensens, the Clown Family of Bangor. Every morning, we squirt each other with seltzer water and stuff ourselves with cotton candy. Then, Karyn, Ivy, Kila and I don our Bozo suits, giant shoes, rainbow wigs and frolic through the neighborhood squealing in high-pitched, unintelligible gibberish, honking our red noses and smutching cream pies into the faces of passersby. When we tire of that, we cram ourselves into our itty bitty Christensen Clown Car and zoom to Pen Argyl or Wind Gap to plague more unsuspecting citizens. Yep, we’re the Clown Family of Bangor, couldn’t be prouder and if you can’t hear us, we’ll scream a little louder!

In order to finance ORSH, I organized and directed several Big Top benefits entitled Midnight Clowns, which we presented to the Big Apple Circus cast, crew, production and administrative staff, members of our board and friends. Barry Lubin, Jeff Gordon and I rehearsed material that was either too in-house or too lewd for the general public, often featuring fellow artists in cameo appearances in various sketches. During an opening sequence, Mr. Stubs emptied a revolver into the ringmaster, a stand-in for Mr. Paul, and my clown associates assisted in dragging his black-booted, red-coated corpse through the chute, our term for “l’entrée des artistes,” the entrance of the artists. Having violently disposed of the authority figure, we gleefully assumed control of the entire circus. In another ORSH benefit, we offered our rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and transformed ourselves into clown zombies. Jeff Gordon, Mr. Gordoon, was very successful in the main show with a piece he created involving four legs. In the midnight, X-rated version, in addition to the four legs there were two large, suspicious lumps beneath his costume. Rob Libbon, in his long career with us, served as crew chief, production manager, even ringmaster and had written an eerie vignette, Diary of a Suicidal Clown, in which I played the leading role. Ah, so satisfying.

The late Paul Newman, a generous supporter of the Big Apple Circus, played with us in one of our journeys to the dark side. After the finale, I addressed the audience. “I would like to thank everyone who made this evening possible, especially our guest of honor, Mr. Paul Newman.” Barry Lubin entered with two well-dressed gentlemen and handed me a towel and an envelope. I continued. “You have no doubt heard of the Shroud of Turin. This is the Towel of Newman, the sacred cloth with which Mr. Newman removed his makeup and as you can see, a perfect imprint of his radiant face is emblazoned there upon. This is a signed affidavit by these two lawyers affirming its authenticity. To support the One Ring School House, Mr. Newman has graciously allowed us to auction this priceless relic to the highest bidder. Let’s begin at $300. Do I hear four?” The Towel of Newman fetched $2,000 and now hangs at the Whitney Museum.

Michael, Karyn, Ivy and Kila

Photos by Paul Gutheil

YEP, SHE’S MY DAUGHTER

I was driving in the fast lane on I-80 east en route to a job in Manhattan. Actually, Mr. Stubs was at the wheel; to save time, I had changed into my costume and makeup before leaving home. Twelve year-old Ivy accompanied me. She was quite comfortable tagging along with her father in his work clothes. In the rear view mirror, I spotted a New Jersey State Police car directly behind me. I shifted into the center lane and he passed. Then he signaled with his right blinker, moved in front of me and continued into the far right lane, slowed until I had overtaken him, signaled left and accelerated until he was once again behind me. Flashing lights and siren. I turned onto the shoulder and stopped.

Somewhere, I thought I had read that in these situations one should exit the vehicle and walk towards the police car, (that is not true) which I did. I waited at the rear of my automobile and fished out my driver’s license, registration and insurance cards from my wallet. Avoiding eye contact, the patrolman took the documents. “Did I do something wrong, sir?”

“What’s with the get-up?”

“I’m a professional entertainer and am on my way to New York for a party. These are the costume and makeup that I wear.”

“Who’s the little girl in the car?’

“She’s my daughter.”

The officer walked to the passenger side and spoke with Ivy for a minute before rejoining me. His demeanor had changed; he was cordial. “We have to be careful these days, Mr. Christensen. Sometimes children get kidnapped this way. Sorry to bother you.”

“I understand, officer. Thank you.”

After processing my information, he returned my cards and we were back on the road. Ivy stared at me for a moment and then commented, “You know, Dad, I thought about telling him I’d never seen you before.” Yep, she’s my daughter. That’s for sure!