• U.S.

Show Business: Large Delights Under a Little Top

4 minute read

The Big Apple Circus does it all in a single, 42-ft. ring

Most circuses brag that they are the biggest shows on earth and try to prove it with three rings, regiments of acrobats, aerialists and clowns and a whole zoo full of pacing lions, dancing dogs, prancing horses and playful elephants.

The Big Apple Circus is different: it has only one ring, two clowns, 14 acrobats and aerialists, one horse, one pony, one elephant — and no dogs or lions at all. What it does have is enthusiasm, charm and the friendliness of the small scale. “This is the maximum size I ever want to have,” insists Director Paul Binder. “If we were larger, we would lose our intimacy and immediacy.” Now completing a four-week run at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, the Big Apple Circus has something else most of its competitors, which play in huge arenas like Madison Square Garden, do not have these days: a 40-ft.-high, bright blue tent.

Pitched in Damrosch Park, right next to the Metropolitan Opera House, it is a reminder of an almost forgotten time, when performing troupes were small enough to carry their houses with them.

All similarities between the Big Apple and those old troupes are purely intentional. Carlo Pellegrini, the ringmaster, comes out in the old-fashioned red coat and high boots and repeats the traditional boasts.

“We have things that will amaze you!” he exclaims. “That will astound you!” And indeed there are a couple of amazing, astounding acts. Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker, does all that can be done on a tightrope but fall asleep; the Gaonas, who may be the best trapeze artists in the world (and who for many years appeared with the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus), force oohs and ahs out of the most jaded spectators; and the Back Street Flyers, six male acrobats from Harlem, show that the most plastic instrument on earth is the human body.

Most of the acts are of a homier nature, however; their aim is to charm rather than amaze. Tarra the elephant plays a harmonica, hits a tambourine and dances atop a stool on two front feet; the Bertinis do figure eights and other intricate maneuvers on unicycles; and the two clowns turn out to be superb jugglers. One of the advantages of a small space—the single ring is only 42 ft. in diameter—is that the audience can become involved. At each show one of the clowns plucks children from their seats to lead the band. Though few in the audience may suspect it, that clown is also the founder and director of the company, Binder himself.

But Binder, 39, is no less unusual than the rest of his troupe. A graduate of Dartmouth, with a master’s in business administration from Columbia, he spent three years working behind the scenes in TV, as talent booker for Merv Griffin and stage manager for Julia Child. Then, in 1970, he met the Big Apple’s other clown, Michael Christensen, who invited him to join the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Hungry to be in front of an audience at last, Binder accepted; eventually the two traveled to Europe, where they performed their juggling act on Paris street corners, then joined the Nouveau Cirque de Paris. “That was my introduction to the one-ring circus,” says Binder, “and I was amazed by the beauty of it. I made up my mind then that I wanted to set one up in New York.”

It was not all that easy, of course, but, with some backing from corporations, he managed to launch a small company in 1977. Foundations, together with New York City and New York State, kicked in more money, and he acquired the talents of an executive director, Judith Fried-laender, 32, a Radcliffe graduate and a lawyer. “I walked out of that tent with stars in my eyes,” she says. “I thought what I had seen was extraordinary, and I wanted to be connected with it.”

Last summer Binder’s group ventured outside the city limits, to participate in the Baltimore International Theater Festival, and made an appearance in the movie version of Annie. Binder also operates a circus school on upper Fifth Avenue, which trains many of the Big Apple performers, among others, and his plans for the future are anything but small. “My dream is to tour six or seven months a year,” he says, “and then perform in the winter in our own indoor facility in New York, in a building called the Circus.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com