Feature Article Vol. VI, No. 8

From Assured Surgeon to Hopeful Savior

The email provided a New York City address on West 62nd Street to which I was to go.  The only trouble was that there were no buildings on that side of the street, bordering the south side of the Big Apple Circus’s encampment at Lincoln Center.  There was only a security kiosk, where I stated my name and business.  The attendant made a phone call and within a few minutes I was greeted by the man I had come to interview—Neil Kahanovitz.   No assistant or minor underling was sent to fetch me.  Instead the circus’ top man presented himself to me on the sidewalk in a pleasant and decidedly non-intimidating manner.  From there we proceeded into the big top and took seats side by side to chat about his second adventure at running away to join the circus  as Jennifer Vidbel provided an appropriate backdrop by putting her horses through their paces in the sawdust ring.

Kahanovitz’ first such adventure came when he was a teenager and joined the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus as a candy butcher.  While in elementary school he had already devoured any book about the circus he could find, but the tipping point came one day while a senior in high school.  He played hookey to watch in awe as the Ringling Bros. Circus  moved into the Baltimore arena.  “It was one of those defining moments in one’s life,” Kahanovitz recalls today. “It was one of those special moments. It was like someone had turned a black and white movie into color.  To me it was like,’Wow this is magic.’”

Hooked, he put off college, and much to his parents’ chagrin, stayed with the circus for five years, eventually becoming part of a trampoline act and even ascending to the flying trapeze rig.

After that youthful fantasy, the circus stayed safely tucked away in his cherished memories as he became a renowned spinal surgeon, operating on no less than three Supreme Court Justices. He stopped operating a year and a half ago.  Now at 68 years old, he is a partner in an investment group that won control of the Big Apple Circus in a bankruptcy sale this past February, and is faced now with the question as to whether or not they can save the show, now in its 40th anniversary season, from extinction.

With the sale the show changed its business model from not-for-profit to for profit. “I don’t think there was ever a question,” he says.  “The folks I put together to invest and buy the circus at the auction never ever had any idea of not being for profit.  We were looking to make this a viable business opportunity and to have it continue, and it was pretty clear that the non-profit nature of the Big Apple Circus wasn’t working.”

That decision has changed just about everything connected with running the show. “We are trying to look at this more from a business model perspective. We are looking at operations. We’re looking at marketing differently, public relations differently and we’re looking at production.  When you see the show I don’t think you will see anything to suggest that we are not willing to put money into the production.  From an act perspective I think we probably got the best acts that you can find.  It really comes down to running it efficiently, and looking at marketing and public relations a little differently to try to increase ticket sales, obviously, but also sponsorships and private events.”

Evidence of the new owners’ willingness to spend money on production can be seen in the fact that Nik Wallenda and his troupe of nine highwire artists, an act that obviously doesn’t come cheap, are the featured attraction. “I called Nik when it looked likely that we would prevail at the auction,” Kahanovitz recalls, “and he was eager and interested and delighted to come work at the Big Apple Circus and New York City.”  An added incentive to Wallenda may have been the Big Apple Circus’ New York presence and identification.

Curiously the Wallenda’s seven man pyramid has never been performed in New York City before. “The fact that they are doing the seven person pyramid, and we have the quad in the same show is circus history,” Kahanovitz points out with quiet pride.  “I think that speaks to our commitment to putting on the best possible show that we can.”

One of the most significant innovations to the Big Apple Circus’ operation is its intention to tour much more aggressively than the previous administration was able to do. After the New York engagement which ends in early January, it will move to Atlanta.  This, in itself, is not an entirely new development, but it will be setup in a somewhat new location.  The next stop with be at the National Harbor, which is just across the river from Washington, D.C. The show is still trying to secure an acceptable lot in Boston. The City Hall Plaza which worked so well for the show for the past several years is unavailable because it is being renovated.   “It’s been a real struggle because Boston is so built up now, particularly in Boston proper, so it has been difficult to find a lot that is big enough to hold the circus,” Kahanovitz says.

After Boston it will be on to the Fair Grounds in Baltimore in May. Plans call for the show to remain out through July, but the dates after Baltimore, which will include several cities, are still being considered.

Since it takes between three and four days to set up the big top and its furnishings, each of the stands will be for a minimum of three consecutive weekends. In Washington the show will do four, with five in Atlanta and three in Baltimore.

Contrary to past practice this year the show did not play a try-out date prior to coming into New York. Kahanovitz says that was because of the limited amount of time there was to get the new show up after the sale was finalized. “Next year we are seriously looking at a city prior to coming to Lincoln Center.”

At the time of our conversation the new season was just a few weeks old, and it was too soon to tell how the box office was doing other than to say it had been picking up. “Our biggest hurdle was to make people aware that the Big Apple Circus was back,” Kahanovitz points out. “But I think the word is clearly out now thanks to the New York Times review which was prominently displayed on the first page of the paper’s arts section, and its designation as a “critics’ pick.’  Since then tickets sales have significantly increased, and we’re happy with the way it is going.”

In addition to merely making the public aware of the show’s being back in town it has also been eager to project a new look in its advertising. “We wanted to update the logo and the graphics and we’ve been working with one of the big marketing firms that handles clients who present live entertainment here in New York, and we felt because of the nature of the Big Apple Circus being an intimate, sophisticated entertainment, we wanted something to reflect that.   Our goal here is obviously to continue with the legacy of the Big Apple Circus and its many different aspects, but also to make it somewhat more accessible, more attractive to folks who would have not previously been interested in going to a circus.”

On the other hand there is Grandma, the clown, who seems to project a totally different image than that of the graphics. “We want to appeal to everyone,” Kahanovitz explains.  “To me the most gratifying things I’ve heard from people who have come to see the show so far, is that it really appeals to everyone.  And to hear things like a parent say how happy she was to see her 14 year old son not looking at his phone for two hours.  It obviously means we’re doing something right.  Our goal here is to really expand the reach and really make the Big Apple Circus something that everyone wants to see.”

Part of that strategy must include winning back previous patrons. “We haven’t yet gone directly to past patrons, but I know that on the first weekend we had a number of the old board members stop in and see the show.  They are always welcome, and it was gratifying to hear them say they were thrilled with the production and what we have done this year.”

When it comes right down to it, Kahanovitz reminds us that at this point the Big Apple Circus is basically a start-up company, and one never knows what the next challenge is going to be. “Right now,” he says. “we are focusing on finishing out the tour dates.  I am on my way to Circus Knie [in Switzerland]next week to look at a few acts for next year.  We have already started to plan next year’s show.  There never seems to be enough time.”

He also plans to attend the Monte Carlo festival in January, so it appears he is having a hand in the talent scouting as well as all the other aspects of the business.  “There are a couple of acts that we have talked to that we are close to signing for next year, one of which I’ve seen in the states but another has never been in the states before.  We have been looking at acts now for a few months in anticipation.  That will increase over the next month or so as we wind up booking next year’s show.  There are several of us that are working as talent scouts, but right now I am serving in whatever role is needed.  I have to tell you that looking for new talent is a lot more exciting than looking for new trailers.  We have done that, too.  We are done with that part for a while.”

In addition to the Big Top performance, the new owners are intent on trying to continue the show’s legacy with its established out-reach programs: the circus of the senses, the autism shows, affordable shows for the community.  “At the same time we are really trying to enhance the production values, and obviously we are very interested in providing the best acts from around the world.” Guillaume Dufresnoy, who is listed in the program as a creative consultant,  has been incredibly helpful in recommending acts.  “He has been a gift in helping us plan this year’s show and the next few shows to come.  It has been a delight working with him.”

Along with all that, of course, is the challenge of making a sustainable business. “That is why we have spent a lot of time trying to map out a marketing and public relation campaign that will make people aware of just how special the Big Apple Circus is.

Meanwhile the rest of the circus world has been reeling from a number of closings and bad news, all of which has inevitably had an impact on the Big Apple Circus in a number of ways. “We don’t want to feed off others’ misfortune or bad luck, but obviously it pushes us into the role of the pre-eminent circus in this country, and it opens up a talent pool.  But it also puts a lot of pressure on us to maintain this type of circus tradition in the United States.  When you look at production values and the consistency of talent the Big Apple Circus has always been at the forefront along with Ringling in presenting the best that is out there.  With Ringling off the road it puts even more pressure on us to maintain that stature for American audiences.”

Obviously that magical moment Neil Kahanovitz experienced as a teenager back in Baltimore continues to hold him in its sway. Despite his self-effacing manner, his soft spokenness, his passion for the circus is genuine and all-abiding. “To come back and do this has been an absolute dream come true, but on the other hand, even though I wasn’t involved in the circus for decades, it never really left me.  It was always there.  How many people get a chance to run away with the circus not once but twice?”

Neil Kahanovitz with director Mark Lonergan


with flying star Ammed Tuniziani