A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Big Apple Circus

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Big Apple Circus

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After filing for bankruptcy, the Big Apple Circus returns under new ownership to Lincoln Center, with Nik Wallenda and Grandma the Clown as headliners.

“Good…good…good…good…good…good.”

Grandma the Clown and I stopped talking mid-conversation—and I held my breath—as we gazed at the high wire in the Big Apple Circus tent. Nik Wallenda and his troupe were practicing the Wallenda Seven Person Pyramid during the last week of rehearsals before the circus officially opened, and I had a front-row seat. Other than the hum of the fans running to inflate the safety air mattress in the ring, all you could hear was the mid-walk check-in from the high-wire walkers—and it’s no different in performances. When I saw the full show during opening weekend, even the babies and toddlers in the audience seemed to realize that something dangerous and awesome was going on 40 feet in the air and didn’t make a sound.

If the Wallenda name isn’t familiar to you, it will be once you see the Big Apple Circus this winter. Nik Wallenda, a seventh-generation member of the legendary Wallenda family, is headlining the 40th anniversary season of the Big Apple Circus with Barry Lubin, aka Grandma the Clown, who is appearing in her 26th season with the Circus.
     

ringmaster ty mcfarlan big apple circus
Katelin Walling

Ringmaster Ty McFarlan, who was the 34th ringmaster in Ringling Bro.'s history, is leading this season of the Big Apple Circus.

     

‘The Big Apple Circus is Bigger and Better Than Ever’

I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t the Big Apple Circus file for bankruptcy last year? You’re right; it did. And that’s when Neil Kahanovitz, its chairman, stepped in. “I put together a group of people who wanted to keep the Big Apple Circus alive and in New York City,” he says. That group, Big Top Works, acquired the circus nearly a year ago.

Kahanovitz—a spinal surgeon who took a five-year leave of absence from medical school in his 20s to be a circus performer—had compelling reasons to save the Big Apple Circus. “It’s one of the shining stars of the unique culture in New York City. You have Lincoln Center, which is the premier performing arts center in the United States, and right there for almost three months during the holiday season, you have what is now the pre-eminent circus in America,” he says. “And for decades and generations, people have grown used to bringing their kids and now grandchildren to see the Big Apple Circus, so it’s really part of New York’s cultural history.”

Typically the creative team (including the director, choreographer, lighting designer, set designer, and musical supervisor) starts to plan the season almost two years in advance. “This year, because we didn't know if we were going to be able to buy the circus, we jammed almost two years of activity from a production standpoint into six months,” Kahanovitz says. “It’s been very hectic and…it’s certainly paid off.”

Once the performers were confirmed—this year’s show has high-wire walkers, acrobats, clowns, contortionists, and puppies and ponies, among others—the team figured out the run of show with the aim of keeping audience members of all ages captivated. “Pardon the pun, but it’s really a juggling act of putting the acts in the right order so that it flows and continues to build throughout the first act and into the second act,” Kahanovitz says.

After the circus completes its almost three-month run in Manhattan, it will travel to Atlanta, GA; Washington, D.C.; Boston, MA; Baltimore, MD; and possibly a few more cities, taking the tour through July. Kahanovitz’s goal? “That people realize that the Big Apple Circus is bigger and better than ever, that the acts are bar none the best in the world and are all gathered in an incredible production setting that has been developed by New York and Broadway’s finest production teams.”  
   

The Ultimate Balancing Act

With circus performing in his blood, Wallenda first began walking on the wire as a toddler. “I was about 18 months old…we were in California on a show called Circus Vargas, which is still running to this day, and I was walking up the tent line as my mom was helping me,” he recalls. By age 2, he was performing in the ring as a clown. As a young teen, the high wire beckoned again—“13 years old was my first performance up on a wire,” he says.

Growing up in the circus was “an amazing life,” Wallenda says. His mother home-schooled him while they were on the road, and his field trips were to cultural meccas such as the Smithsonian and Gettysburg. “Wherever we were, we got to see history face to face,” he recalls. When the family was not touring, Wallenda attended private school.
    

erendira and nik wallenda big apple circus
Maike Schulz
Nik Wallenda rides a bike across the high wire, while his wife, Erendira, hangs by her mouth 40 feet in the air—a feat you can see at the Big Apple Circus this season.

    
“It was a pretty awesome life for sure, to have a close family like that and to be able to see the world,” he says. “It’s an experience that most children don’t get.”

Balancing his family life with performing is challenging for Wallenda, especially when walking on a wire across Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon—huge TV productions that came with a lot of media, a lot of training, and a lot of focus, he says. “The truth is, I went out and did those things because my passion was always performing under a big top,” he adds. “The idea was to go out and do these giant productions to raise attention and raise awareness of what happens [in the tent].” Though Wallenda completed these and other amazing feats (he holds six Guinness World Records for tightrope walking), he says the accomplishment he’s most proud of is raising his three children.

While none of Wallenda’s kids have expressed interest in becoming the eighth generation of circus performers, his 15-year-old daughter is following in his footsteps as a home-schooler traveling with her parents and the Big Apple Circus. Wallenda also has two sons, a 19-year-old who enlisted in the Marines, and a 16-year-old who is back home in Sarasota, FL, playing high school football.

As for why Wallenda and his wife, Erendira, who also performs in the show, decided to join the Big Apple Circus this season? “We saw it as a great opportunity. …We saw it as ‘hey, our industry needs a shot in the arm and this is a great opportunity with new leaders, new owners, to go out there and show the United States that the circus industry is still strong and going strong and will continue on,’” he says. “This is the premier circus, without question, in the U.S., so we saw it as a great opportunity to come back to the industry that we love and be a part of reinvigorating it. I think as a whole this team can do great wonders for our industry and for our passion.”
     

Clowning Full Circle

Barry Lubin (Grandma the Clown), on the other hand, “never intended to go into the circus,” he says. While he’d been a bit of a clown growing up, he discovered a passion for professional clowning during his college years. At the time, he was a student at Emerson College in Boston, MA, and thought he was going to become a television director.

“The stress level was so unbelievable that I changed majors and changed majors and after three years, I wanted to take a year off to figure it out,” he says. “Well, I never went back because during that year off, I auditioned for [Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey] Clown College and just got drawn to this. I ended up going to Clown College instead of finishing my senior year, and was offered contracts with the now-defunct Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and it just kept snowballing.”  
    

flying grandma the clown
Maike Schulz

"It is so freeing to be up in the air. I do project upon myself that I can fly, and there’s a moment when I fly with a child from the audience... It makes me almost cry every day to do it. It’s like granting a wish to a small child to fly, don’t we all want to fly?," says Barry Lubin, aka Grandma the Clown. "It’s not only one of the great moments in the show, it’s one of the great moments in my life."

    
Grandma the Clown was created at the beginning of Lubin’s career, when he was just 22 years old. “Grandma is a compilation of my two grandmothers, who I love very much, and my observation of senior citizens through the years. It’s one of many characters that I started off with, and it's the one that audience members identified as the one they wanted to see more of,” he says.

Lubin has now been performing for 43 years, and this year kicked off Grandma the Clown’s 26th season with the Big Apple Circus. He’d left back in 2012 to pursue other opportunities, one of which was to be the first professional clown to perform on all seven continents, which he completed in January with a show for penguins in Antarctica.

“The great thing about Grandma is, in a person’s life a grandmother is a beloved figure...I pay tribute to senior citizens, I don’t make fun of senior citizens. And now, in fact, I am a senior citizen. I’ve come full circle. I was a 22-year-old little old lady and now I’m a 65-year-old little old lady.”

His bio on the Big Apple Circus’ website says his daughters “have gracefully navigated the world having to explain that their father is also a Grandma.” Though his children are adults now, Lubin says balancing clowning with raising children was difficult. “Years and years and year ago, the family did travel together, but my wife and I decided we wanted our kids to have the opportunities to take swim classes and dance classes and have a social life that was more like a ‘normal’ child’s,” he says. “Over the years I have missed a lot of important moments in their lives, but I try to minimize that as much as I possibly can. They’re adult children now, so they tolerate it pretty well, and they did back then as well. [But] it made me ache when I had to miss a dance recital or something extremely important in their lives because they only got to do it once.”

The chance to have more time with his daughters, who live locally, was part of the equation when deciding to be part of the Big Apple Circus’ 40th anniversary season. “Getting to spend the holidays with my kids…when I’m all over the globe is very difficult to do, obviously,” Lubin says. “I have a tradition with my kids where on Christmas Eve, we drive around and look at the lights in New Jersey and have dinner together. It’s a very small thing, but a very important thing.” Family time, and the fact that Big Apple Circus is the “best circus in the world,” he adds, made the decision relatively easy. “I’ve crossed almost everything off my bucket list and being back in New York is a big moment for me. When I stepped out of my trailer in makeup just now, to me it was like, this is pretty fantastic. It feels like coming home.”
    

A Show for the Young and Young-at-Heart

Back in the arena, the tightrope walkers have finished practicing the Wallenda Seven Person Pyramid and are back on the ground. The staging team works quickly to break down and fold up the safety air mattress and set up for the next act to rehearse, just like they do during full performances.

In addition to Wallenda and Grandma the Clown headlining the Big Apple Circus, this year’s show also includes Ty McFarlan as ringmaster; the Anastasini Brothers performing their icarian act (one brother does flips and does tricks while balancing on the other’s feet); Dandino, a roller-skating act; Elayne Kramer, a contortionist and seventh-generation circus performer; Jan Damm performing a ‘rola bola’ balancing act; Gamal Garcia Tuniziani, a juggler and third-generation circus performer; the Flying Tunizianis on trapeze; clown Joel Jeske, “who is a phenomenal partner” to Grandma the Clown, Lubin says,; and Jenny Vidbel, who performs with her horses, ponies, and dogs.

For those who are concerned about the welfare of the animals performing in the show, rest assured they are treated well. (When I visited the horses and ponies, who are rescue animals, in their clean stables during rehearsals, they were enjoying fresh hay.) “They are part of Jenny’s family. When she rescues these animals, she doesn't really look at them as performers first.  If they do work out to be performers and it’s something they like to do, then good. But if not, they spend the rest of their lives out in the pasture at the farm, which is in a gorgeous setting in upstate New York,” Kahanovitz says. “Those horses and ponies are just as happy as any horse or pony I’ve ever seen, and they’re immaculately taken care of. Jenny, first and foremost, is completely in love with every one of those animals.” And you can see that affection in the show.
   

      
The Wallenda Seven Person Pyramid is the show’s finale—an act “that has never been done in New York City, and it’s something that people recognize as the most difficult aerial feat, particularly on the high line,” Kahanovitz says. The pyramid was first conceptualized in 1946, when Wallenda’s great grandfather sat “at his dining room table with a bunch of wine glasses, and said, this would be cool, and started stacking them up and created the seven-person pyramid. He started training for it on the wire in 1947 and performed it all the way through 1962,” Wallenda says. The family stopped performing the stunt that year when two of Wallenda’s uncles died and one was paralyzed from the waist down during a performance in Detroit, MI. The catastrophe occurred because one of the performers “was under the weather, slipped, and fell,” Wallenda says. The family brought the Pyramid back to the high wire in 1998, and now New Yorkers young and young-at-heart can see “the most dangerous feat you can do in the circus world,” according to Wallenda.
    

wallenda seven person pyramidKatelin Walling

The Wallenda Seven Person Pyramid is "certainly the most dangerous feat you can do in the circus world. It’s proven to be that by the accidents and lives that were lost," Nik Wallenda says. You can see it in person at the Big Apple Circus this season.

    
Producing a show that appeals to all ages is something Kahanovitz says is important to Big Top Works. “What really excites me is to talk to people as they leave the show, and they realize that this is not just a circus for children. It’s a circus for everyone. And we have put together a show that really has something for everyone. Clearly children love it, but what we’re really excited about is the fact that people in their 20s and 30s and parents and grandparents love it just as much, if not more.”
    

The Big Apple Circus is at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center, Manhattan, with performances through Jan. 7, 2018. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit bigapplecircus.com.


Main image: Things get a little wet when Mr. Joel and Grandma the Clown perform their entertaining water act at the Big Apple Circus.
Maike Schulz

   

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