I think it was 2001 or there abouts. When this white privately educated young man walked into NICA. We were doing the generic introductions, sitting in a circle telling each other something about ourselves.
It got to Golda Ashton she told us an amazing tale of being raised under the canvas, a woman who can only be described as circus royalty, part of a true dynasty. A woman of incredible strength and talent.
Well this overly privileged twat made what he thought was witty quip saying, ‘wow you’re a real carnie.’
She looked into my eyes and with the utmost composure and fortitude matter of factly told me ‘never call me that again.’
This B.A.toting Melbourne Uni grad had been well and truly schooled.
As part of the street performing community we felt a sense of pride and otherness as being seen as associated with the ‘c’ word as renegades that lived outside and shunned the system.
How wrong was I, to refer to these extraordinary hardworking artists using that word was equivalent to using the ‘n’ word .
For the first few months I treated Golda with reverence and more than a little fear.
Well over a decade has passed and I can say the fear is gone but the reverence remains and I’m proud to call her friend. Though I’m careful to never utter the ‘c’ word.
My first real job after leaving NICA was for a no less noble dynasty with the Gasser family. Frank the owner of Circus Royal was a seventh generation circus artist. His wife Manuela was the power behind the throne, having the final say in casting and was still super handy with a needle and thread. Frank having been a judge and a performer at the most prestigious circus festival, the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, along with Prince Rayner and a heavily pregnant Princess Grace, he helped get their limousine unbogged, in a white unitard he as his brother who were performing there trapeze act he was splattered with mud from head to toe, he performed everything from juggling, handstands, flying trapeze, an elephant act and lastly as a tiger tamer. Or in his case a tiger carer. He would tell me the only way to work with the giant cats was with praise and rewards. Anything else was foolish, dangerous and just didn’t work. By the time I arrived at the circus all the exotic animals were gone because of pressure from the groups like P.E.T.A. As Frank described to me the big cats spend ninety percent of their time under the shade of a boab tree, half the size of their enclosures.
As for the elephants to refer to them as anything other than domestic animals shows such an ignorance in human history. According to many scholars the domestication of the elephant predates that of the horse. And as Alexander the great would attest they were the main reason he was pushed back from his infamous conquest of the known world.
When I arrived we had cows, geese, doves, horses, camels a dog and a shetland pony. As for the human zoo we had a high-wire troupe from Argentina, a fantastic speed juggler, Arial was a little fire cracker, pulling out amazing trick after trick, Carlos, Frank’s son performed the most amazing handstand routine I’ve ever seen. We’ve all seen the block drop, but this man at the age of forty also twirled a cylinder rizly style whilst in a one arm handstand. Viviana Martinez would spin on her head balancing on a trapeze Chavella would dazzle with both her hoop routine and bounce juggling. The finally was a highwire act like nothing I’ve ever seen, skipping with no safety line or net this act culminated in two bicycles ridden along the wire whilst Viviana performed a handstand on poles held by the two bicycle riders An amazing line up, every artist performing multiple acts. I would never dare refer to these artists using the ‘c’ word again.
They were also selling popcorn in the interval and helping pull the tent down and put it up again There was no jealousy, no competition, each routine was never owned but as something to be shared with, the next generation.
I remember spending time watching Carlos dedicated to sharing his routine with Alex Stephens. Right down to the construction of the blocks for the block drop.
I spent two years with that family circus. Only moving with Frank when the circus was sold to help produce the awe-inspiring but short lived show ‘La soiree’. Not many of you saw it but it was the work I’m most proud of. It had the perfect mix of comedy, skill, and best of all it told a story. I’ve had a great career treading the boards with Magda Szubanski, spent four years working the cruise ship industry, every major festival from Glastonbury to Christchurch, even a spot of telly with Paul Mcdermott’s ‘The Side Show’ . These all pale next to the work I did with Frank. I think one of the testaments to this is just about every artist from Christie Chelpa to DJ Garner are still using routines they developed for that show.
For month after month Frank and I battled council after council. Jumping through hoop after hoop with the inevitable rejection after rejection; whilst Frank and Manuela’s savings flitted away.
It was a show with heart, everyone who contributed gave it every ounce of their devotion. Why we didn’t get the houses is a mystery to me to this day, whether it was marketing, location, ticket price, or that there was only room for one Spiegeltent in Melbourne.
But to put a silver lining on this experience the Melba Spiegeltent went to the most worthy home I can imagine
Thanks circus Oz for giving the old girl another life.
Anyway I went on a bit of a tangent there sorry about that.
Back to Circus Royal and its treatment of animals. Those animals were so loved and cared for. I’m a vegetarian and when we were picketed I knew firmly which side of the line I stood on, proudly with my circus family. My boss who was affectionately known as Oppa and the late Manuela known tenderly as Oma The traditional circus world and all whose life she touched still grieves our loss of the grandame of the Australian circus, with her sparkling mischievous eyes.
The best anecdote to sum up the treatment of the animals treatment was if the temperature reached above the mid 30s the animal were not allowed to work under any circumstances. The humans on the other hand had to go out no matter what the whether, whether it was freezing or well into the 40s we went out stretching routines and bringing out old ones that hadn’t been performed in aeons. We did it and it was fine but the acts that stole the show were the animals. I would ride a giraffe unicycle with one leg whilst balancing a goldfish, strictly made of rubber. Though I had performed at the Auckland festival and the protesters were out in force assuming I was doing the trick with a live goldfish. Anyway I again digress I then kicked the fish into a goldfish bowl on my head. And the response was nothing compared to the cows that simply walked around the ring inevitably at least one doing a poo to the squeals of delight from young and old. We mostly worked suburban shopping centre car parks. Allot of these kids had never seen a cow up close. They then put their front hooves on pedestals surrounding the ring whilst a shetland pony ran underneath them. The audience went absolutely wild.
With dwindling numbers of traditional circuses, little to no access to inner city circus lots and no help from government grant money add to this the misinformed propaganda from groups like PETA it saddens me to see these caravans filled with a rich culture disappearing into history’s setting sun.