Feature Vol. II, No, 3

Sending Your Daughter off to Become a Human Cannonball

This is the first of a two part series relating Elliana Hentoff’s experience in becoming Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s newest cannonball.  This first installment deals with this fromthe point of view of her mother Jessica Hentoff.  The second install which will come in a later issue will take up Elliana’s point of view.

 

 

The phone rang.  It was Jim Cole calling to say Brian Miser had recruited him to ask around the youth circus community and see if anyone knew of a young woman who was capable of becoming Ringling’s new human cannonball.

A recent Wall Street Journal, recounting this incident, began by suggesting “I’m fairly confident this conversation would never have occurred at our house.  The phone rings and my wife picks it up, listens to the caller and then turns to one of our daughters and says, ‘You want to get shot from a cannon?’”

That makes for a good lead to a story, but it wasn’t like that at all.  Neither was the caller, the request, nor the person who took the call all that unlikely.  And it was far more than just a shot in the dark, like an announcement that you had just won the Irish sweepstakes.

The Hentoff-Killian family in 1996. Elliana is right seated below her mother.

Jim Cole is the founder and webmaster of the Circus Fans of America Circus4Youth website.  Brian Miser was, for several years past, the cannonball on the Ringling show, his last appearance as the Human Fuse. Both of these men were known to the only parent the caller had to deal with, Jessica Hentoff, who, by any account, is hardly your everyday mom.

And then there was Elliana, Jessica’s only daughter and at 20, her oldest child.  At the time of the call she was at home working as an interim lead coach with the understanding that it was only temporary position with Circus Harmony, the youth circus her mother had founded.  Elliana had just left the circus school in Quebec, Canada, and was eager to be out working as soon as possible.

Cole quickly informed Jessica that Ringling was looking for an American girl who was willing and able to be shot out of a cannon.  They had had someone who didn’t work out, and, as a consequence, they needed someone right away for the new show that would soon go into rehearsal.  Rather than asking her daughter if she wanted to do it, Jessica merely relayed what she had been told.  Upon hearing that, the first word outs of Elliana’s mouth were “you know I’m no good at math.”  She was obviously no total innocent of what the job entailed, because it does, in fact, take some math to figure out the correct trajectory of the cannon. Both Jessica and Elliana knew other people who had done this kind of act.  One of these was Warren Bacon, Jessica’s first circus coach when she was still in college, and the other was Rebecca Smith Olate, whom Jessica had worked with on Tarzan Zerbini’s 1987 tour and was also known by Elliana.

Rather than urging her to try for the job, Jessica simply disabused her daughter of the fact that math might be a stumbling block.   She assured her it would probably not be a problem and that more than likely Brian had figured out the formula, and the calculations on the Ringling cannon were more or less the same every time it was fired.  Ultimately it all came down to a simple question: “Do you want to get in a cannon and get shot out of it?”

A pregnant pause thus ensued.  “It was hers to answer,” Jessica points out. “I would have been fine with her saying no.”    Nonetheless she hesitated before offering it to her.  “I did,” she confesses.  Even keeping in mind what they both knew about such an act and her daughter’s experiences growing up in the world of circus, she had to take a breath and remember it was not like it had been with her father.  Elliana had grown up around some of the most famous circus daredevils in the world, the Flying Wallendas.  She knew the risks and the devotion to one’s work it took to be a performer.  No, it was not like it was when she started out.

Jessica was brought up on New York’s Upper West Side, and as a youngster she was a bookish student.  At the State University of New York at Purchase she elected to major in sociology.  Her senior thesis however was “ With It and For It; Circus People as a Deviant Subculture.”   While in college she spent summers touring with small circuses like The Circus Kingdom juggling and clowning and working on the street doing fire-eating.  Her father “thunderously” disapproved of that flamboyant activity, and so she took up the trapeze instead.   “I did not feel I had won a significant victory,” the elder Hentoff has written of that memorable confrontation.

After college, determined to pursue a career in the circus, Jessica studied with Nina Krasavana and Gregory Fedin, two graduates of the Moscow Circus School, who were working with the Big Apple Circus at the time and had a training center in Hoboken, New Jersey.  They helped her and her partner Kathy Hoyer develop their sensational double trapeze act, which did little to help the elder Hentoff accept his daughter’s new career.

Nat Hentoff, Jessica’s father, is a civil-libertarian, novelist, jazz and country music critic and syndicated columnist for United Media, who even at 86 still writes regularly on jazz and country music for the Wall Street Journal.  For fifty years his column regularly appeared in the Village Voice in New York City.  In 1995 he was given the National Press Foundation’s Award for Lifetime Distinguished Criticism to Journalism.  So apparently this acorn had fallen rather far from the tree.

Nontheless, he collected the clippings his daughter had earned as an aerialist, but until 1986 had refused to attend any of her performances for two reasons: protest and fear.  Jessica had fallen five years earlier, and for many months thereafter they argued in an effort to get her to stay on the ground.  As a kind of compromise he bought the Hentoff and Hoyer duo a net.  It was never used.

During his boycott of her act, he has subsequently revealed, “I kept to myself my admiration for her doggedness and devotion to her obsession.” With that in the back of his mind, her letters home from the road finally wore down his resistance.  “For one thing,” he has admitted, “I had my own obsessions and therefore ought to be able to understand her single-mindedness.”  He saw her act for the first time on Circus Flora in 1986 Saratoga Springs, NY.

First time in the ring at six months with Giovanni Zoppe at Circus Flora

 

 

Elliana, in contrast to her mother’s entry into the circus, started training with the St. Louis Arches, the group of kids from a mix of backgrounds whom her mother had put together as an acrobatic troupe. When they first appeared on Circus Flora, she was just a few months old.  Her first trick was performed with the clown Giovanni Zoppè, who balanced her in the palm of his hand.  As she grew up, she was always with her mother as she worked with the Arches and when she taught circus arts in other school programs.  She joined the Arches, herself, when she was just five and remained with that original group as they appeared with Circus Flora for the next fifteen year.   Eventually several members of that group got so good they were accepted into the professional circus schools in Canada, Elliana among them, and others have turned professional with the Flying Wallendas  and the Flying Pages.

Of those years, during which Elliana became proficient in a number of circus skills, Jessica recalls the time when Elliana was learning web.  “She was eight years old, and I was not the kindest teacher, and she was sometimes brought to tears.  For her it was like being the son or daughter of the school principal who would always be harder on his own kids than anyone else.”  During that period the young performer spent endless hours at the City Museum in St.Louis, Missouri, Circus Harmony’s home base.  In fact, “she spent more time there than at home.”

What made it possible for her always to be in her mother’s company, taking in, either by osmosis or direct involvement, all that circus theory and training,  was that she and her two younger brothers were home schooled. That decision was based on the quality of the public schools available in St. Louis, at that time, and apparently they haven’t gotten any better.  They recently lost their accreditation. “My neighbor home schooled, or I may not have thought of it otherwise,” Jessica says.  “In retrospect it may not have been for the best for them to have me as their circus teacher, mom and school teacher.  It was too much.  But in circus that’s what you do.”   Although Hentoff’s children were home schooled, as circus kids they were not isolated from rest of society.  They were around kids like them and the public all the time.

So once Elliana expressed interest in pursuing the possibility of being Ringling’s newest cannonball, the next step for Jessica, like any concerned mother, was to do some research on Brian.  She was, after all, far more protective than would appear from the proceeding scenario.  “I have always preached that in the circus there are three ways to get hurt.  You can mess up and make a mistake personally, which would be your personal error, or you can get hurt because of your partners’ error, or because of equipment error,” Jessica explains.  “I wanted to research who was going to train her and who had built the cannon.   Some cannons are better than others.”

As it turned out, everyone Jessica talked to had only good things to say about Brian Miser.  “In any business that is huge,” Jessica points out.  “I called Warren [Bacon] and Rebecca Smith Olate who I know and trust and asked what they thought.”  Their opinion brought Jessica to interview Brian himself.  “He acknowledged that the act was dangerous and also fun.  And he asked me if I thought she could do it.”  She had no qualms about recommending her daughter physically, but ultimately she knew, mentally, it had to be up to her. “I would have been fine either way.”   And there was something else to consider, going with Ringling meant a long commitment.

Finally after the initial excitement of the coming audition abated a bit, Elliana thought to call her father Mike and tell him.  Jessica and Mike have recently divorced, but they both had the same wish for their children, to see them happy in whatever they do.  So no problem there.

In responding to Miser’s question about whether Jessica thought Elliana could do it, she says, “I like to think that if Elliana says she is going to do something she will do it and honor a commitment.”  So having watched her training and sure of her character as well, Jessica, gave Brian her assurance that Elliana was indeed capable.

The next step was to meet Brian, audition and be interviewed.  This all took place in Rochester, Massachusetts, and as it turned out Elliana was not the only person auditioning.  There was one other candidate. At the conclusion of the audition Elliana was informed that she had the job.  Besides an acrobat, the show wanted someone who would be at ease talking to the media.   At that point things began to move very quickly.  She was told to go back home and get whatever she would need until Thanksgiving, when she would be able to go home for a visit and get whatever else she would need to travel for a year.  Within a week she had joined the show which was then playing Boston.

Jessica flew up to Boston with Elliana and remained for a few days and watched her daughter’s first few shots.  In the past when Elliana and her partner on the aerial lyra Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan practiced a very dangerous trick, Jessica dealt with that by taking a page out of her own book.  She remained focused.  Literally.  “I never just watched it, I always took pictures and that’s how I was focused,” she confesses.  In this new situation she says, “I won’t say I was a nervous wreck, but I was relying heavily on my faith that the universe had not brought her there, not help her.  And I trusted her.  So I have the video of her first good shot.”

When Jessica was able to speak with her daughter sometime later she asked her about Ringling’s orientation and media training, and was happy to hear Elliana say “It was everything you’ve been telling us for years.”  So she was well prepared and quite used to following rules.  As such she was the perfect person to be with Ringling.  “She likes structure,” Jessica says, “and they are very structured,” and as far as being prepared to live on her own, she had already met that challenge when she went up to Canada for a year.  “My advice is pretty simple,” Jessica says.  “Be focused and have fun.  It’s kind of a joke to the Arches, because I say it all the time, but it’s good advice.”

Jessica’s father seems to be dealing with this new source of potential worry much better than he had with her. “This time with his granddaughter, he is more accepting,” Jessica reveals.  “I am hoping he will be able to come to the show.  He is fine at the typewriter (he still uses one), but at 86 he doesn’t go out much.  I showed him the video.  His reaction was ‘Wow!’  He was concerned, but not fearful.  I broke that barrier.”

And with Elliana another barrier was broken. Back in 2006, after the Arches had performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey during its pre-show, Jessica wrote in the Circus Harmony newsletter Tumbling Times,  “Who knows?  Someday one of our young stars may become a feature act with Ringling Brothers!”