Features Vol. II, No. 9

Photo by Paul Gutheil

The Big Apple Circus Music Man Blows His Horn

on Band Stands and Orchestra Pits

When Rob Slowik joined the Big Apple Circus band in 1998 his friends in the New York musical scene advised against his taking the job because it would take him out the New York freelance loop, of which he was an active member.  He had been subbing in many of the Broadway musicals of the time, playing eight to ten shows a week.  His original intention was to stay with the circus for only half a season, but when he was offered the conductor’s position it was incentive enough to stay.  After one year in that position he became the show’s musical director.  He has been with the show ever since.

And he has been able to continue freelancing on Broadway shows whenever the opportunity turns up, which is fairly frequently.  The idea of his subbing in Broadway shows is not so remarkable when one considers that many of the people who play in the circus band are freelancers as well.

Since the Big Apple Circus does not provide living quarters for any of the band’s sidemen (only Slowik and the drummer are provided housing in New York and travel with the show) freelancers are hired in each of the cities it plays.   There is a core of musicians, the regulars, who play most of the performances in New York, but, they, too tend to sub out to do other work as does Slowik himself . “The nice thing about being in New York is that even the subs when they come in are fantastic.,” Slowik says.  “ When we play big cities on the road, like Boston, we get great musicians in Boston.  When we play Viriginia, I get all the guys from the military bands and the  D.C. bands.  So they are all the best in the country, and when we go to Atlanta there are good musicians down there, too.  So everywhere we go, there are good musicians.”  Most of the players that sub at the circus are usually pulled from the Broadway pool.  “Sometimes I look forward to the subs just because it’s a little different, and I enjoy the variety.”

With Grandma

Some of the recent shows Slowik has played are The Book of Mormon and the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show. “What’s nice about that,” he says, “is that several of the trumpet players that play in that Music Hall orchestra  regularly also sub with us, so they know my schedule, and they will call me when they know I don’t have shows.  So I can fill in the gaps.  It’s nice to be able to do that.  It’s a great orchestra, too.”A couple of years ago the pop star Harry Connick, Jr. came to the circus and afterwards came backstage and up to the bandstand to meet the band.  “He was very gracious, very nice, he enjoyed the show, and his daughters loved it,” Slowik relates. “ And then about a month and a half later we were in Atlanta, Georgia and during the show I got a phone call.  I didn’t answer it because I didn’t recognize the caller ID, so I let it go to voice mail.  A couple of hours after the show I remembered the call and checked my voice mail.  It was Harry Connick himself asking if I could be  in a little town next to Atlanta the next day.   It was like a 30 minute flight.  So luckily I have a sub conductor in the band who could conduct, and I hired a local trumpet player in Atlanta to cover for me here, and I went and played with Harry Connick.  I played with him for three nights straight, and then he asked me if I wanted to do his European tour, which I did for about four months.  It was so much fun.  It was during the time the circus was on, but it  wasn’t a straight four months.  We would do a month in New Zealand and Australia and then we would have a couple of weeks off,  and I would come back and do the circus.  And then we did Africa and Europe and Middle East,  Istanbul and places like that for a month and then we would come back.  It was nice because during his shows he would introduce me to the audience and tell them how he met me, how he came to the circus and how much he loved the circus, and he would  always come up with something new in his show like a clown act or something, mimicking Bello.  It was really cool.”

With Bello

With Bello

So what’s this about substitute conductors?  There are two in the band, Slowik acknowledges, the second trumpet player and the guitar player. The core band (seven in recent years, down from eight) travels with the show, by air rather than mobile homes or bus, and are put up in hotels in each city the circus plays.  If one of the men from New York can’t make it Slowik will hire a local person.  “More often than not half of the band are subs. “  Beside giving him the opportunity to sub himself this arrangement also allows him the chance to  get out into the audience and see the show from the audience’s point of view.  “That way I can see and hear how the music fits together with the acts from the audience’s perspective.  It’s a valuable tool to be able to do that,” he says.

As music director, Slowik is responsible for selecting and fitting the music to each of the acts in the show. As a general rule the music will be different from what the acts have been working to, sometimes for their entire careers until they get to the Big Apple.  That is because the music, besides fitting the act, must also reinforce the show’s theme.   “We try to change the music so it supports the theme, but still give the act the tempo and the accents and the feeling that they like and need.” Nonetheless  more often than not the performers  resist these changes to their music.

The hand to hand act, Acro-Duo,  in the current show, for instance, had been working to what Slowik describes as  a slow “new-agey”  kind of music because that is the way they moved.  But Artistic Director, Guillaume  Dufresnoy wanted more energy in that part of the show so the music was changed to a rock tune.  “They don’t love it yet, but at least they don’t hate it anymore,” Slowik admits, “and to be honest the acts that resist the music the most are the ones who at the end of the season will ask to buy the music  and take it with them.”

For Daniel Cyr’s work on the unsupported ladder Slowik had originally considered using a different “new-agey” piano piece, which was rejected in favor of a guitar solo.  “But when I played the music with his act in Walden it just didn’t fit,” Slowik recalls.  “It wasn’t the right energy for the show.”

At some point the Musical Director hit on the idea of using George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”  It had the hustle and bustle of Times Square that the director wanted in the show, what with its honking horns and rhythms,  but even a piece of music like that has to be tailored to the act.  Slowik began that process by video taping Cyr’s act.  He then took a recording of the Gershwin music  and chopped it up into pieces and then just tried different sections in different parts of the act, moving sections around and trying to make it fit.  “I got really close and played that for the director.  Daniel did not love it at first because it was very different from what he is used to using.  He is used to slower music.  He saw the act as being more lyrical, not the pulsing energy of “An American in Paris.”  The revised score was then sent  to our arranger, the aptly named David Bandman,  who is located in Washington D.C.  to be orchestrated for our band.    “It is probably one of my favorite pieces in the show to play,” Slowik says.

With John Kennedy Kane

With John Kennedy Kane

For the young juggler Ty Tojo, the music selected was greatly influenced by the performer’s father Dick Franco, who, Slowik points out,  is very knowledgeable about music and knows what works.  Several months before rehearsals started  Franco sent Slowik a video of his sons’s act, which included his music.   It had been edited by Franco to  fit with the act, and he had choreographed Ty to fit to the music.  So all Slowik  did was have the music orchestrated for his band and augmented it a little bit with all the hits that punctuate Ty’s catches.   The music originally didn’t have any horns in it.  It was, according to Slowik’s description,  more techno-rock.  So horns were added for accents.  “It gives it the right texture and makes his tricks stick out,” Slowik believes.  But like the entire show it is still a work in progress.

“We make changes all along the way.” A performer  will ask for  something, and Slowik will put it in  or move something or add an accent here or there.  “Every act is always morphing.  We never have a lock in period.  Because people have injuries and as they do more and more shows they will start to pick up their pace a little bit.  So the music will start to pick up a little bit.  Sometimes we just have to put the brakes on.  I will put things to a click track to keep things consistent.”  A click track he explains is like a metronome, which all of the  bandsmen  have in their ears.  Ty, he points out,  has a very specific tempo that he wants.  It is 140. 5 beats a minute.  That’s the tempo he can do his tricks at, and if it’s a little slower, he has to keep the balls up longer, and it doesn’t work.  If it’s faster he can’t keep up with it.  “So we all have that click in our ears so that the tempo stays the same throughout.  And Dick says as the season progresses we will probably have to speed it up a little bit.  ‘Cause he will get better at it.”

In addition to the click track, all of the people in the band are wired so they can hear each other and receive verbal cues from the conductor as something may arise in the middle of an act that requires skipping a section or  changing the timing.

There is also some original music in the show, the work once again of David Bandman.  It is used principally in the opening charivari.  The finale is based on a tune called “Fireworks”  and after the count down to New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the music becomes a rock version of Auld Lang Syne and as the playoff the band plays “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Rehearsing with choreographer Vicki J. Davis

Rehearsing with choreographer Vicki J. Davis

“I asked [the composer]  for two minutes of music and he sent me the score and I recorded it and gave it to the director and choreographer and they pretty much worked to that,” Slowik says of the creative process.  “ We had to add stuff up front,  an intro and extend it another 30 seconds, and wherever the choreographer needed an accent we put that kind of stuff in.  For the opening and a lot of the production stuff we can write the music first so the director has a starting point.  And then we can adjust it and edit it to fit whatever he needs.”

So what is it that keeps this much traveled musician with the Big Apple Circus?  It’s the trailer.  “Living in the trailer is really what keeps me here.  I really enjoy the trailer life.  This is my trailer.  We are always changing it around and remodeling.  It’s a nice home project like a hobby.  Most people don’t like the trailer life, but I enjoy it.”  He shares the trailer with his girlfriend Emily McGuire, and her two sons who are fourteen and fifteen .   McGuire is the head groom and a showgirl.  Both of the boys work for the show as well.  Patrick, the younger, is an usher.  Jerry started as an usher and now fills in wherever they need someone.  They are home schooled.

On a more professional level Slowik says being with the show has made him grow as a musician. “There  is no more demanding gig for a horn player than a circus gig.  We are playing all the time.  In a Broadway show you might have a fifteen minute rest between playing.    It has helped me to work on my technique and my chops and endurance as a musician.”  He does not foresee moving on.  “Any other gig I get I can kind of work around the circus.  It’s important as a musician not to let it get stale or become bored.  So many of my friends who are doing Broadway shows might do the same show for ten years. I get to do a new show every year.”



Riding the Wall of Death

by Liz Arratoon

Globe 1

Any performance with ‘death’ in the title is bound to cause a stir. The Wall of Death, the Wheel of Death and the Globe of Death mix thrills with terror, but what gives the wall an extra frisson is the close proximity of the riders to the audience. James Messham presents and operates Europe’s oldest motorcycle show on the “smallest and steepest track” in the world. But it’s more than steep, it’s vertical.

Just twenty-one, his son Jake Messham is a fourth-generation Wall of Death trick rider and the show’s star. His brothers Nathan and Junior also ride. It was their granddad’s brother, Jake Messham Snr, who was the first in the family to ride the wall. Jake says: “He worked on the fair with [showman] Pat Collins and when the Americans brought it over to English funfairs in 1929, the riders taught him to ride. In the mid-30’s he bought his own Wall of Death.” Back then it was the biggest thing on fairgrounds and Jake Snr wanted a part of the high money-earner.

globe 3But Jake is keen to point out: “You’re not there just to go round. People stand out at the front and think, ‘Oh, it’s just riding motorbikes around’, but you’re there to put a show on and entertain people. You want to make them laugh and clap and make sure they enjoy it. If I drove round not looking at people or smiling, it wouldn’t be the same.”

The audience climbs a flight of open wooden steps to the viewing gallery. Separated from the riders by a simple steel cable and asked to keep their hands away from the edge, they find out why when the riders circle the 20ft-high wall within touching distance, sometimes not holding on. It’s an astounding sight.

There are four elements to Messham’s show. Mick O’Malley might start with high-speed riding before front man Charles Winter demonstrates the “dips and dives of death”. Jake performs “trick and fancy” riding – similar to bareback skills – before he is joined by Winter for the Australian Pursuit, during which they chase and overtake each other, and finish circling the wall one above the other. They look as if they’re having the time of their lives, smiling and saluting the crowd. But it is Jake’s sequence of stunts that brings gasps of disbelief and cheers of appreciation for the man’s sheer nerve.

Impressively, the Brighton-based daredevil was just eleven when he started learning to ride. Winter, who has been riding with Messham’s for thirty years, played a vital part in passing the knowledge on. The tricks are first learnt on a rolling road, where the bike is positioned on rollers. It’s stationary but has the feeling of movement, and Jake “doesn’t exactly know” how they graduate to doing them on the wall.

“It’s just one of those things,” he says. “You get in there and do it. The first trick you learn is to let you hands away from the handlebars and at first it does feel really weird. The force pushes against your body. Once you can move across the bike you can do anything you want, really. When I’m going round I’ve got total control. Before I start I look up. I can see the people and spot exactly where I’m going to put the bike.”

The straight riding is done on Hondas but the fancy tricks are performed on a 1923 Indian Scout – a machine with wide handlebars and generous leather seat – which has always possessed an international reputation for power and reliability. “It’s all about speed,” Jake explains. “If you go too fast when you’re on the Indian doing tricks, you won’t be able to move across the bike. The blood will rush from your head to your feet and you’ll pass out. The slower you go, the better the tricks look and it’s easier to move across the bike. But if you go too slow, you’ll just fall off.”

The centrifugal force pulls the human flies to the wall but he reveals: “What actually keeps you on the wall is the friction on the tires. They are standard road tires. We go between 15 and 20mph. You see a lot of riders go too fast but then they can’t move across the bike.”

It’s said that trick riders have to be as fit as fighter pilots to withstand the increased G-force. “Riding does keep you fit. You’re pulling about six or seven Gs going round. It’s about three times your body weight.” But that’s not all that keeps Jake fit. It takes him and four others roughly seven hours to set up the drum and maybe four to take it down. With more than 780 parts, it’s no picnic.

The wall – constructed from 15 tons of Oregon pine – forms a circular wooden drum, 30ft in diameter. It is a faithful reconstruction of a traditional American design, built to specifications passed on by the famous rider Speedy Babbs. A red boundary line runs round high up the wall, but tire marks show that the riders do stray beyond it.globe 2

So just how dangerous is it? Jake acknowledges the risks: “You can always have accidents. I had a couple last year. The tire can blow up, you can have a puncture or the engine can seize up, you never know. It’s just one of those things. The first time I ever fell off I broke my ankle in three places and had a metal plate and nine pins put in. I was in a cast for seven months so when I got out of that I was a bit wary. I was only twelve, so it took a little while to get back on the wall. It is dangerous but more people have been killed setting it up or taking it down than riding it.”

Messham’s worldwide reputation still doesn’t make it an easy ride. “Years ago, you’d walk on to fairgrounds and there’d be two Walls of Death. You’d start the bike up on the front and people would just come at you. Now it’s hard to get people in. The older generation recognize it, but my generation doesn’t know what it is. They think it’s a wall that people stick to. In the old days on fairs, there’d be a show row with loads of different shows, but people are not educated about what shows are these days. It’s all fair rides.”

Anna Carter, who owns and runs Carter’s Steam Fair where Jake performs, is trying to address that. Recently at Pinkney’s Green, Maidenhead, she recreated an old-style show line with Voltini’s authentic Victorian sideshow, Jon Marshall’s Headless Lady illusion, Colin Thorpe’s Siamese Twins exhibit and his Mirror Show. She says: “With so few shows on fairs now, it’s very exciting to have Messham’s with us. People absolutely love it. If you go to modern fairs, all the shows have just disappeared but everything about Carter’s is about the past.”

The past resonates with Jake, too. He regards the wall as his life’s work, a vocation even. “I love the history and keeping the family tradition going. It is hard work and sometimes the weather is bad and we take no money, but if there are two or three people waiting you still have to put on a show. You can’t be in it for the money. We’re never going to be millionaires, but when you’ve had a really good day, it’s worth it. I love doing it. It’s in my blood.”

Liz Arratoon is the circus critic for The Stage newspaper where a version of this feature first appeared.




 The unsuspecting volunteer

“You’re not going to have a go, then?” Mick said, when I went inside the drum to have a look round after interviewing Jake. It wasn’t a challenge, just a casual remark. I’m in no way a daredevil but, for some unknown reason, I said: “Can I?” I knew I was a good pillion passenger but hadn’t a clue I’d find myself sitting over the handlebars of Jake’s Indian. He told me: “No leaning. Keep your hands on your thighs.” No holding on, no helmet, either. I’d even left my glasses on. I had to lean back against him and was allowed to notch my neck into his.

The noise of the engine alone is terrifying, and though, strangely, I felt no fear, I did say: “Just stay down low.” Three circuits flashed by with no real sensation of being on a vertical wall until… we started to climb. “Oh, you’re taking me up,” I said weakly. “Oh no,” I thought.  No leaning, no holding on. They’d told me they’d once had to push someone who wouldn’t sit still off the moving bike so they didn’t cause an accident. Yikes! Better not freak out. Round once, twice, three times, all in a blur. Coming down was fine until we slowed and then I really felt I was going to fall off. But I didn’t. I was OK. I’d ridden the Wall of Death and survived.

Now whenever I go back to watch them – one of the most thrilling and visceral performances on the planet – I see the height of the wall and think I must have been out of my tiny mind.   LA