Small circus big on wonder

This article was originally published in the Times-Herald Record, 1997.

Joyce Vidbel prowled outside the striped tent as the Cossack Riders brushed past her on speeding mounts and The Glamorous Susan, bedecked in sequins, checked her acrobat’s harness. Fifty years ago Joyce was the voluptuous girl with sinewy limbs in spangles and she played the biggest cities and the biggest arenas with the biggest show of them all, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

But this was a Wednesday night in Saugerties, one of 150 stops in little towns along the East Coast for Vidbel’s Olde Tyme Circus, and the big tent was anchored to a rocky lot just behind the playground and it held perhaps 400 people.

When the circus comes to New York City, the elephants are marched through the Lincoln Tunnel and a parade accompanies the performers to Madison Square Garden, the biggest center ring of them all. Vidbel’s circus crept into Saugerties on a steamy summer evening, trucks and trailers snaking silently down Market Street; only the children seemed to notice.

Vidbel’s is among the smallest shows on earth and there are no stars outside the center ring. Vlastimil Valla, the sixth-generation Czech acrobat, spots for the other acts, tosses the Cossack Riders their fur caps as they gallop into the ring, and then quickly changes from tuxedo to tights to dangle his young bride from a bar at the top of the tent. A genial but none-too-silly clown hustles programs between acts. And The Glamorous Susan strips swiftly out of her leotard to dish cotton candy and sno-cones in a small trailer at intermission.

“A show like this becomes family,” Joyce said, “because everyone has to take care of everyone else.” And what an eclectic family Vidbel’s is:  the Cossack Riders from Kazakhstan, the Vallas from Czechoslovakia, Milo Murillo from Italy, and Peggy Mills, one half of an archery act, from Ashtabula, Ohio. The circus is small but the performers are hardly second string. All have worked the biggest shows, but if they miss the brighter spotlight they do not miss the pressure.

“Working for Ringling Brothers was like working for IBM,” Peggy said shortly after shooting an apple off of Milo’s head. “They count your stunts and they count your mistakes.”

The children who came to watch noticed neither the smallness of the circus nor its modest venue. They saw only the magic. Kids jaded by animatronic dinosaurs and high-resolution video games gasped when the Cossack Riders bounded over the lip of the center ring, and their heads tilted upward in awe as the upside-down Vlastimil dangled his spinning wife from a harness around his neck.

It didn’t matter that Kim Valla hung only 12 feet above the ring as she twirled – she had to be strong to do it and if she fell it was going to hurt. The circus offers an odd blend of innocence and burlesque, and boys and girls on the cusp of adolescence blushed and giggled as Kim and the other female performers strode regally into the lumpy ring and alluringly shed satin robes to reveal shockingly brief costumes.

Act followed act and as each performer flew out of the tent the children peeked after them to see what would be next: a fire juggler, tethered horsemen who danced in the saddle, a trapeze artist, an animal act.

There are no lions or tigers or bears in the Vidbel circus, but who needs them when you have bicycling parrots and dancing poodles?

World view, a century ago

The circus comes to us from an age beyond living memory; something resembling a circus first appeared in Philadelphia in 1793 and Aron Turner took a canvas big top on the road in 1830. But the circus as we know it took shape and reached its peak of popularity in the 1890s, as did the World’s Fairs and the scientific museums – developments that not coincidentally paralleled and age of American expansion and imperialism.

Americans were hungry for a view of the broader world they seemed destined to rule and there was no visual medium to show it to them. The circus was a strange kaleidoscope lens that cast mysterious lands worlds away as a menagerie of oddities, and in every city and town, performers demonstrated that Western man could hold dominion over everything. Acrobats defeated gravity, tigers and lions were tamed by stern men wielding whips and chairs. The dances, games, ceremonies of exotic – and often conquered – peoples were transformed into spectacles.

But the circus was – and is – much more than an exhibition of imperialistic hubris; it has always spoken to something universal in the human imagination. Once the circus gave people in the small towns perhaps their only chance to see a lion or an acrobat or a trick rider. In a time when many people were born, lived, worked, and died in the same place, the circus brought the promise of the faraway, and it carried away the daydreams of the bored or restless. Even after the circus went away the dreamers knew it was out there, somewhere.

Alfred Vidbel was a young boy in Newark in 1939 when the circus carried him away forever; when the show pulled up stakes he snuck away from his parents’ house and followed it, becoming an elephant trainer. Joyce, a “horse crazy” teen-ager felt the pull of the circus 10 years later, leading her to a job as a rider and acrobat with Ringling Brothers, where she met Alfred. The two ran a string of shows before launching Vidbel’s Olde Tyme Circus in 1984.

Joyce is not surprised that their small show thrives in an age of glitteringly impersonal entertainment. “People are fascinated by the circus because it happens right in front of them,” she said. “At the small shows you can reach out and touch it.”

Now, of course, there are as many animals on television as there are talk-show hosts, and Hollywood’s special effects send well-coifed movie stars flying through the air in ways the human cannonball could not have imagined.

Television brings us many exotic and exciting images of people and places we might otherwise never see, but in doing so it flattens them out and drains them of life; we see but we cannot experience. Whatever else it is, television is basically furniture, and it does dreamers little good because when they turn it off it ceases to exist; it is not happening out there, anywhere.

Window on nostalgia

The circus is no longer a portent of the future. Instead, it is a nostalgic widow on an imagined past, and the small shows – with few acts, few props, few gimmicks to distract from the feats of the performers in their vaguely gypsy costumes – opens that window the widest of all.

Kanat Tchalabaev, his compact, muscular frame capped by an electric smile and a tall fur hat, bounced in his saddle even after his performance was over. In Moscow, he said, the state owned his horses, his act, his soul. When he and his partners finish touring with Vidbel’s this summer, they will fully own their horses, costumes and trailers. Kanat squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head wildly and smiled when asked if working in a smaller circus was a blow to his pride.

“No, no,” he cried. “The small circus is a more natural way of performing. Being so close to the people gives me energy.”

The small circus has other virtues. It is democratic, for one thing. Today it costs a fortune to see the big shows and the right people’s kids sit right near the ring because companies buy up most of the good seats and the wealthiest spectators pay dearly for “Gold Circle Seating” so they will not have to sit with the rest of us.

In Saugerties, the children of welders, road workers, carpenters, doctors and teachers melted together as they rushed toward the ring to joust with the clown and ogle the animals.

The show ended and the music died and the circus people quickly packed their gear and started to take down the big top. Kids swarmed around the juggler and the clown. Joyce and Alfred Vidbel walked together and made whispered plans for their next stop as the departing crowed eddied around them. They will move from small town to small town until October and then refashion the show and start back on the road in April.

“We never worry about going out of style,” Joyce said. “The circus can never die.”

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