Send in the clowns

Thursday, April 15, 2004
Mitch the clown performed for children of all ages on Wednesday evening at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the SIU Arena in Carbondale, Ill. The circus comes to Cape Girardeau's Show Me Center starting Friday. (DON FRAZIER / dfrazier@semissourian.com)

Starting Friday, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is bringing its extended family of clowns, acrobats, daredevils and elephants to Cape Girardeau to entertain families with the "hometown edition" circus.

"We're a big family, we really are," said circus production manager Brian Newman.

"Family" is meant quite literally. Numerous husbands, wives and children travel with the circus. "Pretty much all of our performers are married and have their children on the road with us," Newman said.

In the case of the Espana family, some even perform together.

Brothers Noe, Ivan and Ramon Espana are fifth-generation circus performers. Ivan's wife, Dessi, is a second-generation performer. Noe's wife, Vivien, is a seventh-generation performer.

The Espanas have been featured performers at Ringling's three-ring circus.

The hometown edition is a one-ring circus that is about one-third of the size of the three-ring group. It was created to bring the show to smaller cities.

"What we're doing is bringing Ringling Brothers to small-town America," said performer John Weiss.

Weiss has been with Ringling for 23 years and has performed as a clown and a human cannonball, although for the hometown edition he performs a balancing act in which he will balance everything from a ladder to a whirring chain saw on his chin.

"I started balancing as a kid, that's what led me to the circus," he said.

Weiss also interacts with the audience throughout the circus performance, talking to them and asking them questions. The audience interaction is unique to the hometown edition shows.

"The concept of the show is just different, I guess you could say cutting edge," Weiss said. "We're inviting you to be part of our family."

Weiss has a family of his own, made up of his wife, Laura, and children Jonny, 9, Nichole, 6, and Max, 4, all of whom travel on the road with him and appear in the circus.

Laura appears with the strongman Herkules and the Weiss children appear with about 20 children at the show's finale. Jonny, like his dad, balances objects. Nichole works with hula hoops. You never know what Max is going to do, Weiss said

Before Jonny was born, Weiss and his wife were prepared to leave the circus when they started having children. But then they discovered it is a wonderful place to raise a family.

"In the beginning it was scary," he said of having a child while in the circus. "When we had our second child we realized, hey, this isn't bad."

One of the reasons the circus is good for a family, Weiss said, is that you get to see them all the time, even with the constant traveling.

To accommodate that, Ringling has a nursery, day care and a school that travels from city to city with the act.

"They make it like a small community and we pitch it up and move," Weiss said.

For the hometown edition, 58 cities are visited in 44 weeks. More numbers: 128 people and 23 animals work on the one-ring show, all of which requires 20 tractor-trailers and 46 recreational vehicles for transportation.

Cape Girardeau is the tenth city where the hometown edition circus will have appeared. The tour has been ground-breaking.

"We're playing places that haven't had a circus in 70 years or more or have never had a circus," Newman said.

While the hometown edition is smaller, performers say quality isn't sacrificed.

"We're every bit as good as the big show," Newman said. "I promise you, people will leave with a smile on their face, the show is that good."

kalfisi@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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