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The Circus is in Town!

FALLS CITY -- Culpepper & Merriweather Circus' troupe wakes up at 5:30 every morning to drive to a new city.

Eight-year-old Vanessa Weems of Falls City found out the hard way that circus clowns like Judy and Punchy will probably take a different tack on simple things like signing posters.

Photo by Pete Strong

Eight-year-old Vanessa Weems of Falls City found out the hard way that circus clowns like Judy and Punchy will probably take a different tack on simple things like signing posters.

June 04, 2013

FALLS CITY -- Culpepper & Merriweather Circus' troupe wakes up at 5:30 every morning to drive to a new city.

Within hours, the crew turns an empty piece of land in that town into an old-fashioned circus, complete with a big top tent, concession stand and midway.

The circus puts on two shows a day starting in the afternoon and then tears it all down again at night.

By 6 a.m. the next day, all that is left of the circus is the memories of the unbelievable feats of the performers, hilarious high jinks of the clowns and adorable antics of the animals.

Last week, Falls City, for less than 24 hours, was part of the old-fashioned -- and increasingly rare -- small traveling circus experience when the Hugo, Okla.-based show came to town.

Two centuries ago, shows the size of Culpepper & Merriweather were common. Now the industry is dominated by large productions (Ringling Bros., Cirque du Soleil) that play larger cities for weeks at a time. Most are sleek productions, with all the special effects modern audiences expect.

Culpepper & Merriweather

Photo by Pete Strong

Culpepper & Merriweather's black-manned African lion Francis takes a little coaxing from trainer Trey Key, right, to take his place atop a perch during the show's big cat exhibition. In addition to Francis, the circus also travels with two golden tabby tigers named Solomon and Delilah. The golden tabby is a rare color variation of tiger that are thought to number less than 30 in the entire world.

Culpepper & Merriweather is a different kind of show by design. First, because it is less expensive to play small towns like Falls City, but perhaps more importantly, it keeps alive the traditional wonderment circuses were originally known for.

"It's a really charming way to do this because it's a really low-tech show," said Nathan Holguin, "Punchy" of the show's clown duo "Judy and Punchy." "It's an 80-foot pushup tent, bleachers, flood lights, a simple sound system and that's it. There are no crazy special effects, no smoke and mirrors, or any of that. Everything you see is as real as it can be."

Holguin, who is touring with the circus for the first time this season after working with bigger shows, said the traditional style -- and the fact that spectators are never further than 40 feet from the circus ring -- resonates with audiences.

"That is something that I think you miss when you get into larger venues," Holguin said. "It doesn't have the same heart and soul that I find in this show."

It's true the audience in Falls City didn't seem to miss the special effects when watching "Miss Simone" fly overhead on a trapeze, or big cat trainer Trey Key work with comically stubborn Francis, the show's black-maned African lion, or a family of performers pull off increasingly difficult feats -- all while riding unicycles.

"Miss Simone" dazzles the crowd with a death-defying trapeze show high above the ring, with no safety net.

Photo by Pete Strong

"Miss Simone" dazzles the crowd with a death-defying trapeze show high above the ring, with no safety net.

Dallas resident Kim McDonald took her four young children on a surprise trip to the circus last week -- or at least she tried to surprise them.

"There are posters everywhere," she said. "They've been asking about it for weeks."

The show didn't disappoint. McDonald's daughter, Kaydence, held up both her thumbs when asked what she thought of the show.

"It's funny," the youngster said, likely referring to Judy and Punchy's well-timed physical comedy acts, some involving props like mops and hula hoops.

"My favorite is the unicycles ... well, actually my favorite is the clown with the hula hoops," she added.

Providing what Holguin calls "old-fashioned magic" requires plenty of hard work. Culpepper & Merriweather is on the road for 30 to 32 weeks a year doing shows every day, unless severe weather or other crises (the Boston Marathon bombings, for example) result in a cancellation.

"It's just a way of life," said performer Mel Silverlake. "It's what we do. You get up at 5:30 in the morning, work all day and go to bed at midnight, but you have a lot of fun in between."

It's an atypical work schedule, where "circus performers go everywhere and see nothing," said Key, also the show's general manager. "We have our Saturdays and Sundays all at once during 20 weeks in the winter."

To pull that off, the circus relies on the commitment of many lifelong professionals -- in the literal sense as many performers grew up on circus routes.

Ron Dykes, the patriarch of a family of Culpepper & Merrriweather performers, takes his fire-juggling act to the top of an enormous unicycle to the delight of the crowd.

Photo by Pete Strong

Ron Dykes, the patriarch of a family of Culpepper & Merrriweather performers, takes his fire-juggling act to the top of an enormous unicycle to the delight of the crowd.

Silverlake, for example, can trace back six generations of circus workers in his family. His parents once owned a circus and his first job was as a clown -- at the age of 2.

Currently, he performs a bull whip act -- Indiana Jones style -- but he's been shot out of a cannon, performed trapeze and worked as an animal trainer, among other acts.

"I was born to do it," he said.

Fellow Culpepper & Merriweather crew member Jose Ayala said the circus has been in his family's blood for at least seven generations. He said his family's first known circus performer came to the United States from Spain as a trick horseback rider.

"That's what we know," he said. "If he came from Spain and was already involved in the circus, there could have been more (family generations in the circus). We are not sure."

Culpepper & Merriweather are inspiring the next generation of circus performers, the children of some of those old pros.

Ayala's son and daughter, Emmanueland Elizabeth, are featured in the show in their own acts. Elizabeth performs acrobatics suspended only by her hair and Emmanuel tests his balancing skills by standing on stacked cylinders in the stunning show finale.

Paulina Dykes, of the family of unicyclers, has also branched out with her "Big and Little" horse act, featuring a huge draft horse and tiny miniature horse.

Dykes said she's been in her family's performances since she was a baby -- perched on her father's shoulders -- and decided two years ago it was time to create her own act.

Ryanne Waugh, 2, takes a pony ride on the midway May 29 under the watchful eyes of her mother Katie, center, and Paulina Dykes, who performs in her family

Photo by Pete Strong

Ryanne Waugh, 2, takes a pony ride on the midway May 29 under the watchful eyes of her mother Katie, center, and Paulina Dykes, who performs in her family's unicycle show as well as her own "Big and Little" horse act.

"The horses in the show are the first ones I've owned," she said. "I wanted to have a horse my whole life, so I saved my money and got a big, giant horse and a tiny, little one."

If that generation is anything like those that came before, the Ayala and Dykes families will be well-represented in the circus world for years to come.

"To me it's life, you know," said Jose Ayala, explaining the long line of circus performers in his family. "I think when you start working in the circus, the first time you step in the ring and for the first time hear the laughter or the applause from the people, that stays in your heart forever."

Circus the numbers:

* 4,000 -- Pounds the circus big top tent weighs.

* 800 -- People who can be comfortably seated inside the tent to watch a show.

* 2 -- Shows Culpepper & Merriweather Circus puts on each day.

* 7 -- Days each week the circus puts on shows.

* 32 -- Weeks in the average circus season.

* 30 -- People who are in the traveling circus troupe, including performers and crew.

* 3 -- Big "jungle cats" featured in the circus show: Francis, a black-maned African lion, and his two accomplices, Solomon and Delilah, rare golden tabby tigers.

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