The Shuster Center turns big top with ‘Circus 1903’

By Terri Gordon

Once billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed for the last time in May. It was the end of nearly 150 years of dazzling acrobatic acts, animal exhibitions, and sideshows. For those who grew up in the era of the circus, it was a sad day. No more clowns, no more trained tigers and elephants, no more horses. Controversy over animal welfare and increasing costs were finally too much.

It was a grand era that ended that day. Ask anyone old enough to remember. When the circus came to town, schools let out and factories closed. Everyone came out to watch the company unload and set up. Before television—and even radio—the circus brought the latest in entertainment to towns large and small.

But hope is not lost—a Broadway production is stepping up to fill that void, taking folks back in time to when the circus was king. “Circus 1903—The Golden Age of Circus” combines the traditional elements of the circus with more modern technologies to take people inside the big top once again. Under the direction of the ringmaster, jugglers, tightrope walkers, aerial artists, and acrobats will perform their incredible feats. New technologies bring puppets to life as elephants—because no circus is complete without them. “Circus 1903” stops in Dayton’s Schuster Center Tuesday, June 13, with performances through Sunday, June 18.

In the ring

The central character of any circus is the ringmaster, and it is no different with “Circus 1903.” Willy Whipsnade keeps the show moving, introducing the acts and entertaining the audience while performers set up.

When producers went looking to cast Whipsnade, they could find no better person than local resident David Williamson. It’s as though his whole life was preparing him for just this role.

A native of Xenia, Williamson grew up on the Cedarville farm, which his family still owns. His father farmed, worked for GM, and took on other jobs as needed to make ends meet. Williamson vividly remembers the day of the Xenia tornado. “My dad came running home in 1974 and threw us three boys in the bathtub and put a mattress over us when the tornado came over,” he recalls. “He saw it coming.”

Williamson’s boyhood passion was magic. A self-described “aimless child,” a magic kit spurred his interest, and the Greene County Library fed it. “I lived there. The librarians were my heroes,” he says, reciting the Dewey Decimal code—793.8—for the magic section. When he was 13, a neighbor found him “hustling girls at the candy shop” with card tricks and took him to Ring 5, Dayton’s magic club.

“Dayton’s had a magic club for decades, and it was very active back then, in the early ’70s,” Williamson says. “I met all these crazy, wonderful hobbyists in the basement of the Catholic Church here, downtown, every first Friday of every month, and they showed me the ropes.”

It helped that his parents were supportive. He attended magic festivals and conventions, his mother sending him off by Greyhound bus. He continued to learn the arts—and he met his idols.

“In sports, you don’t always get to meet your heroes, but magic is a small community, and if you try, you can meet them,” he says. “I met all the great men of magic. The great men of magic, to me, were people who were on TV, people like Roger Klause and Del Ray and Albert Goshman—great old-school, sleight-of-hand, blue-collar magicians. Those were the guys who taught me, and I still look at them like my idols and heroes.”

He started college at Wright State University, and while he was an art major, what he really studied was magic. He eventually gave up on school and set about trying to earn a living with magic. He started in Yellow Springs, doing magic at The Winds. He performed at The Tropics night club in downtown Dayton, and then-owner Joe Smith hired him at La Comedia in Springboro to work his magic at the tables before the plays.

Williamson married. He traveled Europe, performing—and ever-learning—magic.

He finally found his niche performing at private corporate parties. It was a comfortable enough living, predictable, not grueling like the road. He did some TV stints, even helping develop some shows. But then came the economic crash of 2008. Corporate parties came to an end. That’s when he finally answered the calls of the Disney cruise ships he’d been spurning. And he finally said “yes.” His magic had a new audience—families. And he enjoyed it. Then, “The Illusionists,” a traveling show about, what else, magic, came along. He worked with them off and on until its producers put together “Circus 1903.”

“They liked the way I worked with families and kids—and also I look like a ringmaster, and have the energy for it,” Williamson says. “So, I got picked up for this role, and I just love it! Now, we are traveling the world. We started in Australia at the Sydney Opera House, toured Australia, and now we’re touring the U.S.” Dayton is one of only 11 scheduled stops for “Circus 1903” in the United States. “Coming to the Schuster is a special thrill for me. My neighbors don’t know what I do,” he jokes. “I’m always gone.”

As ringmaster, Williamson sees himself as the show’s “emcee.” He “whips the audience into a frenzy, gets their attention, and then he puts the spotlight on the next act. He paints a beautiful picture for the audience, using over-the-top, flowery vernacular, especially in 1903, to guide,” he says. He is the narrator. The master of ceremonies—with a little magic thrown in for good measure.

Family acts

The circus Williamson’s Whipsnade oversees is filled with action. There is the Cycling Cyclone, who performs acrobatics using a bicycle. There are jugglers: Francois Borie from Paris, the Great Gaston, and the Rossi Brothers, who are sixth generation circus performers. Hermanos Rossi performs ancient foot juggling.

Les Incredibles perform high-flying somersaults and other aerial maneuvers. The Flying Fins, a trio from Helsinki, launch themselves into the air using a teeter board to perform their special feats, and Elena Gatilova, a former World Champion of rhythmic gymnastics, performs “aerial ballet.”

There is the Elastic Dislocationist, a contortionist able to twist her body into seemingly impossible poses, and without double jointedness or other “malformation.” There are the dare-devil, high-wire antics of the Lopez family of Guadalajara, Mexico, and Mikhail Sozonov, whose parents both performed with the Russian circus, demonstrates incredible balance on the Rola Bola. Duo Flash, made up of Yevgeniy Dashkivskyy and Yefrem Bitkine of Kiev, Ukraine, mixes comedy and acrobatics in a lively pantomime routine. These are the acts as old as the circus itself, often performed by families and passed on from generation to generation.

Avant-garde, vegetarian elephants

And then there are the elephants. Queenie is a full on life-sized mother elephant puppet, and Peanut is her spirited baby. The puppets were created by the same team responsible for “War Horse.” Made of plastic mesh over an aluminum frame, they are wholly hand operated, with no powered or animatronic elements. Queenie, who stands roughly 10 feet tall, requires four handlers. Two handlers work inside the puppet, on stilts, to move the legs and body, while a third person works from the floor to control the puppet’s head. A fourth person stands by to operate the trunk when necessary. It takes tremendous coordination, strength, and stamina to bring the elephant to life. The baby elephant is smaller and more easily managed. Still, one person works inside the elephant, while another stands by, again, to help with the head and trunk.

British actor Luke Chadwick-Jones operates Peanut, and was on hand at a recent preview to discuss his character. Chadwick-Jones has studied both drama—think Shakespeare—and acrobatics, but wasn’t quite prepared for playing a circus elephant. Producers took the role seriously, too, taking cast members to the Sydney Zoo to observe the animals. Chadwick-Jones was surprised at how suddenly and swiftly they can move, given their size and weight. He was also surprised at how their personalities can vary from individual to individual. The experience helped him develop Peanut’s character, which he describes as “cheeky, feisty, and joyful.”

Chadwick-Jones believes the elephants are an important component in the show—a bridge between the traditional and the modern worlds of circus. “The puppets are significant objects,” he says. “The people who made them did such a fantastic job. It really takes the audience back to see full-scale elephants, and how this works with the puppeteers inside. It’s breathtaking. I think it resonates with people because it’s something that hasn’t been brought to the circus before. It’s a new element. It’s a throwback circus, but brings in these new elements.”

Dawn of a new Golden Age

“Circus 1903” ultimately tells the story of the circus. People see as it comes to town—a very big deal, in the day. They get to watch the preparation as the show comes together and the tent is raised. Once the stage is set, as it were, the show begins. “It’s a very clever way of presenting the circus acts and telling the story of the circus at the same time,” Williamson says. “We’ve built a big, beautiful spotlight and a big, beautiful frame to showcase these amazing acts that would have been active in 1903.”

“It’s an homage to simpler times, when people were still thrilled by men flying through the air—and no Marvel movie will ever compete with actual men flying through actual air,” Williamson continues.

“When I was in Australia, I peeked through the curtains and there were three generations sitting in the front row—these 12-year-old boys, their parents, and their grandparents, all sitting drop-jawed during the entire show. You’re not going to get that off a little screen in the living room, [with] everybody watching different screens. They were laughing and clapping and cheering all at the same time. That’s what the show is about. It’s community—because when the circus came to town, the whole town came out to see what wonders were brought to their small town. So we hark back to that.”

‘Circus 1903—The Golden Age of Circus’ takes the stage Tuesday, June 13–Sunday, June 18 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets start at $30. For tickets or more information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 888.228.3630 or visit TicketCenterStage.com and VictoriaTheatre.com. 

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Terri Gordon
Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks (http://tsgordon.blogspot.com) is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

One Response to “The Circus Is Back In Town” Subscribe

  1. Mark Turner June 16, 2017 at 8:13 am #

    Hi Terri, great review!
    I’m glad you enjoyed the show. I loved it.
    Would it be too much to ask please if I could grab a pdf copy of the version of this article that went to print?
    It features my photos and I would to have a copy if I could.
    Thank you!
    Mark

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