Feature Article Vol. IV, No. 4

 Caught in the Middle

by Sarah Chapman


Sarah Chapman’s career as an aerialist with the traditional circus came at a time when the circus was just beginning to evolve into forms it had never assumed before.  From that unique position in the middle between the older traditional circus and the new contemporary circus she was able to look back to see where the circus had been and ahead to where it was going.


When I look back on my fifteen years as a professional circus performer, I feel caught between the traditional three-ring , profit oriented, muddy lots, canvas arenas, staked elephants, barking candy butchers, superstitious, heavily made-up, and the falsie stuffed costumes of the traditional three-ring circus, and the new community-oriented, jazzy, colorful, theatrical performances of the new one-ring circuses of today.

I have taken Tiny Kline who was also an aerialist, as an example of the kind of circus that came before I entered the profession.  The sheer number of performers in the show during her era is mindboggling.  She and her cohorts worked under conditions that were primitive compared to mine, and even more so to those experienced by today’s performers.

I was born in 1945, around the time Tiny and her  gang were retiring.  At nineteen years of age I married retired aerialist, turned clown, Danny Chapman, who was born in 1913.  As I hung around with his friends, I listened to their stories, saw their photos and remade their castoff wardrobe for myself.  He and his friends were a constant source of names, places, and dates.  So between my husband and Tiny Kline’s memoirs edited by Janet Davis in the book Circus Queen and Tinker Bell, I got a good sense of what life on the road in a circus was like before I joined out.

In thinking about the differences between then, my era, and the current circus I have focused on three areas: composition, wardrobe, and clowning.  Then as now the circus was composed first of all by performers.  In Tiny’s time the performers were mainly European and the rare Asian troupes.  In my time they were both naturalized and American-born performers, who looked warily at the influx of Cuban, Central and South American acts.  Today Russian and Chinese acts are flooding the market, and soon we will be seeing more Cuban acts again.

Before my time and for some time into it, favorite acts were teeterboard and bareback riding troupes. The daring thrill acts were mainly aerial.  Many of these acts have all but faded from view, especially the bareback acts.  They have been replaced in large part  by corde lisse, silks, hand balancing, hula-hoops contortion, and a new kind of daredevil acts using unique props or motorcycles,  few of which were even known in Tiny’s or even my time.    Even the aerial acts performed on trapezes have changed in style.  Trapeze dance is a form gaining much favor thanks to graduates of the circus schools around the world.

Around the time I began my career circus managements and AGVA (the American Guild of Variety Artists) were engaged in an ongoing dispute over union representation.   The union did not prevail for very long and few circus performers are represented by AGVA today even though at the time it seemed a way to win better working conditions and salary.

Today many acts try to tell a story or establish an emotional response.    I missed out on that, and I cried when I watched David Larible serenade a little girl who supposedly came from the audience as she watched David’s sister on a Washington trapeze .  They had, in fact, taken my act to a higher level.

Acts used to begin with what was sometimes a grand entrance wearing elaborate capes and head pieces from the performers’ entrance.  Nowadays performers are discovered in place or on their rigging if aerial and begin their act as soon as the lights come up.

Even the rigging has changed.  Hydraulic winches were a no-no to Danny Chapman.  He made me climb up my web 500 times a year on Ringling.  Today’s performers zip up and down, hanging by their wrist, in a beautiful pose.

One of the most significant changes, insofar as maintaining a certain level of artistry is concerned, is that today’s acts on Ringling work unhindered by the distractions of candy butchers hawking their wares competing with the performers for the audience’s attention.  Today some performers do the talking.  They wear microphones so they can explain to the audience what they are doing.  This is most commonly seen in wild animal acts.

Circus performances that are staged indoors can always rely on certain conditions to prevail during their performance.  One day in 1967 when I was with Carson and Barnes in the Midwest, I was on my trapeze while a severe storm swept through, causing the quarter poles to bounce around, straining my crane bar, guy wires and stakes.   Those conditions can still be encountered in tented shows today .  It is one aspect of the canvas covered circus that has not changed, but the lighting under those plastic tents has improved enormously from my era, (how I wished for more than two followspots on Ringling ) although what I had was certainly an improvement over the lighting Tiny Kline worked with.

As always current fashion influences circus wardrobe.  In my day sequins and spangles gave a costume extra sparkle and bounce.  The basic costume was enhanced by feathers and jewelry in the hair or on the body.  Today, in response to the fashions of young people today, preferred by the hip-hop and rap artists of the music world, all this glitter has been banished.  In its place are costumes in styles sometimes described as grunge, shabby chic, or goth.  Most young performers seem to prefer working in jeans and a t-shirt when they want to dress up or torn and tatter rags when they want to dress down.  Black is the preferred hue, a color once reserved for formal men’s wear.  The young artist of today wants to look as if he or she just came in off the street and casually began doing incredible things

I had fun with costumes.  My personal wardrobe got a kick start from some old Ringling costumes I bought from one-time costume designer Max Weldy.  I also got to wear many production outfits designed by Don Foote, my favorite being my Maharani dress, white feathered headpiece and fan.  I always looked forward to what the next change of costume would be.

I began in the business in white face, assisting Danny as the voice of his European-styled pantomime numbers.  Prior to clowning he had worked as an aerialist in Europe where he fell in love with the European style of clowning.  He desperately wanted to duplicate this style in America.  It consisted of multi-talented clowns playing various musical instruments, doing acrobatics, working with animals and a theatrical style of clowning with and without speech.  He wanted the clown to carry the show forward like water flowing over rocks in a stream.  To that end, he incorporated himself into the Ringling production numbers without management asking him.

Eventually Danny’s clown morphed from his tramp makeup to a pixie style .  The tramp style of makeup was the first to go when the Felds took over the show and over the years makeup has become less and less extreme.  Danny and Mel Miller put together the first Clown College for the Felds.  Much of the old pratfalls and slapstick comedy remain a part of all clown’s repertoire, but in Ringling they are mostly seen in  clown production numbers.  In most mud shows they are there only to fill in during prop changes.

Another big change from when I was performing has been the emergence of not for profit circuses.  They simply did not exist in my day and certainly not in earlier times.  But this change has brought about many other  changes insofar as a circus’s involvement in the communities where they show.

The circus continues to evolve, just as it did between the times of Tiny Kline and myself and now once again between myself and the contemporary circus.