Features Vol. III, No 1

 

LONE STAR CIRCUS: LET’S PUT ON A SHOW!

 by Dominique Jando

 

Fanny Kerwich is fifth generation of a French circus family. Her parents came to the U.S. in the seventies to work with the Mills Bros. Circus, and then moved to Canada where they established a small circus that toured Québec’s hinterlands, visiting farm communities and Indian tribes where no circus ever went. Like all circus kids, Fanny began to work in the ring at an early age and learned all basic circus disciplines, from acrobatics to aerials, with her parents. But that was not enough for her, and she later went to Paris to complete her circus education at Annie Fratellini’s Ecole Nationale du Cirque, and then to Moscow, where she worked with the legendary act director Valentin Gneushev on a clown duo with the late and talented Edward Alekseenko.

When her Russian partner died unexpectedly in 1996, she returned to Paris, created a hula-hoop act, and went on to work in nightclubs, at the Moulin Rouge, and then to Circus Roncalli in Germany. Next, in 1999, Fanny came to the U.S. to work as a clown and acrobat in the ill-fated Feld tenting production, Barnum’s Kaleidoscape. The show was plagued with problems, setbacks, and eventually empty houses, and she left the tour in Dallas, Texas, six months before its abrupt ending in New York on December 31, 2000. In Dallas, she had met an attorney, Mark Doyle, who became her husband.

I met Fanny through Barnum’s Kaelidoscape’s director, Raffaele De Ritis, while I was still working at the Big Apple Circus. We discovered that we had many common friends in the circus, notably the Bouglione family, to whom she is close. I had also known her uncle, Armand Kerwich, her father’s twin brother. So we went along well, and we became friends.

In 2002, I left the Big Apple Circus and moved to San Francisco. In spite of what is called there the “circus community,” I felt isolated from the true circus world. Locally, the only link to that world was Teatro ZinZanni—where Fanny came to work for a couple of months with her hula-hoop act. We got together, and Fanny complained about her own isolation, which, in Dallas, was even greater than mine. She had opened a small circus studio, and she taught circus arts to kids at Dallas International School (where children are taught in French) but that was not enough. Soon we shifted to a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland mood, with dreams of putting on a circus show somewhere. Between us, we had enough friends with good acts who would probably come at a cheap price; but we had neither the place, nor… the money.

Fanny is very good at making friends, and she is even better at triggering their enthusiasm over crazy projects of hers! Some time in late 2005 or early 2006, she called me and said that she had found a theater: it was the Scottish Rite Temple’s auditorium in Dallas, which had just been renovated. It was intimate enough, its stage was wide and high enough, and the Masons wanted to promote it; not only were they willing to let us present our show there, they were also willing to foot the bill! So here we were: Mickey and Judy were going to put on a show…

Extravaganza, as the show was titled, opened June 29, 2006. We had a strong cast: Alex Petrov[i] came to perform his spectacular perch pole act and functioned as Technical Director, and his wife, Vicky Szilak, the daughter of the great juggler Fudi, juggled in the pre-show; the juggler in the show was Vladimir Tsarkov (as “The Red Harlequin,” a Gneushev’s creature); Angelo Rodriguez, a Cirque du Soleil alumnus, did his strap act; Johnny Peers presented his rambunctious dogs; a very young Estefania Laurino performed her already beautiful contortion act; and we found a troupe of hungry and unemployed Bulgarian acrobats who were willing to perform a Russian barre act and a spectacular Russian swing act at a truly cheap price: since we provided food and hotel lodgings, it was a good bargain at that point for them. Fanny directed the show and did her hula-hoop act, and Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley, of New York Goofs fame, who had re-settled in Dallas, provided the clowning. In such a small theater, and with such a stellar cast, it was indeed a very spectacular show and our audiences were enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, the partnership with the notoriously secretive and self-protective Dallas Scottish Rite proved difficult, and at the end, the fact they lost money in the venture certainly didn’t help. For all their generosity and their powerful network, they were not marketing savvy—or simply showbiz savvy. The collaboration was discontinued but, at least, it had given us the opportunity to prove our worth.

 Lone Star Circus

Unabated, we decided to do it again. We created a non-profit organization, Lone Star Circus Arts Center, which encompassed Fanny’s school embryo and our new performing entity, Lone Star Circus®. Mark Doyle was President, I was Vice-President, and Mark and Fanny enrolled several of their friends to serve on the Board. The next step was to find a venue for our show, which, we decided, should be presented during the potentially more lucrative Holiday season: oddly, good family entertainment was scarce in Dallas at that time of the year. The venue Fanny eventually secured was the Dallas Children Theater, a very reputable and well-known (albeit relatively small)
theater that happened to be dark between Christmas and New Year—a good indication if any of the paucity of family entertainment available during the Holidays!

Lone Star Circus® made its debut on December 29, 2007[ii]. This time, we had to foot the bill with money we didn’t have but hoped to earn: it may have been a short run, but we had to rent the theater, fly over the performers, put them in a hotel, pay them, publicize the show, secure an insurance, and all other expenses that come with the production of a show. Angelo Rodriguez and Vladimir Tsarkov returned, along with Dick and Tiffany who, as “Monday & Slappy,” have become beloved fixtures of Lone Star Circus® productions. Some friends like the local magician Jeff Lee worked for free, and we even managed to get a teeterboard troupe. The show was also rich in production numbers that made good use of Lone Star Circus School’s students. Some of Dallas’s top French restaurateurs helped feed the performers—who also enjoyed a flurry of parties in a rather short span of time, creating a backstage atmosphere that would soon be part of the lure of our circus—and a few local corporations, the heads of which had been charmed by Fanny, bought blocks of tickets for their employees and friends. It was certainly not easy to re-start from scratch, but somehow we survived!

Lone Star Circus® was (and still is) a non-profit organization in all the meanings of the term! Fanny, Mark and I have donated our time, as well as several board members and friends who came to help. That has been the only way to keep the circus alive and start establishing it. We didn’t do too badly; over the years, it has become a cherished Holiday tradition, with a faithful return audience. Finally after the 2012-2013 run, Dallas began to take notice.

The cultural landscape has changed significantly in Dallas in recent years: from a city of rich oilmen, bankers, and ranchers, Dallas has become a hub for high-tech, Silicon-Valley-type industries, and that came with a slight adjustment of its population—still wealthy but more culturally eclectic. The art scene began to thrive, especially the performing arts, and in the process Lone Star Circus®, which proved to be a unique institution, came into the spotlight. We received a grant from TACA (The Arts Community Alliance), which also hired Clarkson Davis, a consulting firm that helps non-profits to develop and grow, to work with us on a development project. Then, the Dallas Children Theater decided to switch from a passive position as a host to being an active co-producer. This Holiday season, Lone Star Circus® played to sold-out houses with, as usual, a stellar show and an enthusiastic audience.

As the new year kicks in, we are beginning to set up in motion a fund-raising drive to buy a big top and develop a comprehensive circus school, replete with a professional training program. Those are our long- and not-so-long-term projects.

So, as in Mickey and Judy’s backyard musicals, Lone Star Circus® has eventually met with success. It was born simply out of love of (and craving for) good, highly professional circus—a need for Fanny and me to reunite with “our people.” We have presented in our seven shows to date a mix of talented well-seasoned and upcoming circus artists in an unpretentious setting, with high production values and a warm and friendly atmosphere: a recipe that has proved a winning proposition. “The circus”, said Hemingway, “is the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a happy dream…” Well, it may have given us a few nightmares along the way, but at the end, it is indeed a happy dream.



[i] Alex is currently performing with Ringling Bros. Blue Unit, where he is also in charge of the animal department.

[ii] See Spectacle, Winter 2008.

 

Circus Juventas Expanding in all Directions

Betty and Dan Butler, the co-founders of Circus Juventas in St. Paul, Minnesota are busy people these days.  They are expanding the circus’ reach both nationally and internationally.  Their ambitious goals received significant boosters in the past few weeks, first by their presentation at the annual meeting of the Fédération Mondiale du Cirque  during the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival in Monaco, and secondly by the completion of plans to expand their present facility of 21,000 sq. ft. in St. Paul by nearly 50 percent, or an additional 10,000 sq. ft.

The Butlers’  first excursion into the international world of circus came with their successful participation in the Latina Festival held annually in a small city in Italy.  More recently they met Laura van der Meer, executive director of the Fédération, at the organization’s meeting in Sarasota last year, and again at the Fédération’s most recent conclave in Latina.  Through this association, and following in the footsteps of Jessica Hentoff who spoke to the group two years ago and introduced them to the concept of youth circus, they were eventually asked to make a presentation about their experience in bridging the gap between youth circus  and professional circus.   This presentation was met with great enthusiasm by representatives of circus organizations from around the world, and through their membership in OABA Circus Juventas is now a member of the Fédération.

Back at home, Circus Juventas’ growth over the last twenty years has been nothing short of phenomenal.  Not only are all their classes, for young people from three to twenty-one years of age, fully subscribed, but they have a waiting list of students hoping to get in.  Not only have their classes continued to gain in popularity, so have their annual performances, which are now always sold out and enthusiastically reviewed by the press. (Including Spectacle magazine.)

Circus Juventas’ latest project is the proposed addition to their unique training and performance facility.  Part of the expansion is to add amenities the founders never dreamed they would need when they first started out.  One such item will be a prop shop.  To accommodate its expanding roster of students, the 10,000 sq. ft. expansion will also include a 4,500 sq. ft. gym, studios for character development, and dance, a costume shop, and offices.  It will also enable the circus to reconfigure the dome that supports all the aerial rigging.  Dan is dreaming of developing a double flying act.  To accommodate the expanded programs three new coaches were hired this past fall.  All that is needed for this to proceed is a few more approvals from the city, but the Butlers are confident these will fall into place, judging by the enormous community support the circus and its programs enjoy.  To make it all happen faster, insofar as financing is concerned, the Butlers hope to be able to sell naming rights to the new improved facility, which they insist they never imagined would ever get this big and its productions so theatrically sophisticated.

The goal is to raise four million dollars, two million of which will be dedicated to the building expansion, another million will go towards an endowment and the remainder set aside for the eventual replacement of the building’s skin  and other maintenance.

One of the reasons for the expansion program has to do with the subject of Betty’s talk at the Fédération confab.  Increasingly their students are expressing the intention to take the skills they have learned at Juventas and become professionals.  Several of their alumni are currently spread across several American circuses.  The tipping point came around 2008.  Although the Butlers had originally professed to have no interest in preparing their students for a professional career, they found the demand for that kind of training increasing.  The Butlers finally came to the conclusion that it made no sense to train their people and then have them leave to go elsewhere.  More and more of their most advanced performers wanted to get into other programs.  As a result they have started what they call the pre-professional program with the idea of sending more young artists to festivals or into corporate gigs.

Now the Butlers have found that the number of their older students who want to go professional has increased exponentially.  As a turning point their look at their 2008 production, Ravens’ Manor.  “Some of the people in that show wanted to go professional, and we didn’t really have anything in place at that time.  They surprised us, and they thought we didn’t want to support that move.  They thought that they had to go elsewhere, and we didn’t want to support their moving on,” Betty explains.  That was when they began talking about the need to do something to rectify the situation.  “Then we started putting into place some of the measures that advanced the program.”

What distinguishes the present advanced programming is the people who desire to become professional who participate in it.  One of the results was a series of master workshops, artists who have come in to train not just for a specific show but for the young people’s future.  “We don’t have all the details figured out yet, but with the expansion we will have a true professional program , a separate program,” Betty says.   Eventually the new program will go through the processes of recruiting advanced students that the other schools go through, things like applications and identifying who should be accepted.  “For now it is a more informal process designed to support advanced students.”

It has been an amazing journey, the Butlers admit, and we surprises at “where it has taken us.”