A Dying Breed

The Show Must Go On: Culpepper & Merriweather Circus delivers Big Top spectacle, brings nostalgic, traveling show to Clifton

CLIFTON – The smell of buttery popcorn, roasted peanuts and sweet cotton candy, the blinding spotlights, the condensation on the big top’s heavy duty vinyl, seeing a big cage set up in the center of the red, blue and white tent, and Leo the Clown prancing around saying hi to everyone; it all adds to the excitement, the fantasy and mystical that surrounds the circus, then and now.

Just before their season ends on October 21, the one-ring, Big Top Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, came to Clifton Oct. 12, drawing in many grandparents and parents with their toddlers and kids to their two shows. Their show, filled with nostalgia of days gone by is affordable, family friendly entertainment, and is truly enjoyable for children of all ages. The circus partners with non-profit organizations to help raise money for the communities they perform in.

For over 10 years, the Bosque County Rotary Club has sponsored the biennial shows in Clifton, and receives part of the ticket sales going towards their scholarships.

“It’s the joy and laughter that I enjoy; and the kids’ faces,” Rotary Representative and ticket-taker for the day An Thompson said. “Each show is different, unpredictable.”

The smiles and laughter, “oohs” and “ahs” in admiration of the superhuman stunts and skills, the silly clown sketches, the magic tricks were witness to the audience’s appreciation and awe. The jaw-dropping, gravity defying feats on the tightrope and the trapeze captured the young. The hard work and dedication that goes into the performances inspired the older audience.

The life of a circus performer is not all spotlights, glitter and glamour, far from it. It’s a nomadic life, a life of long, long days and hard work, starting early, driving to the next daily location, setting up the big top, training, readying the show animals, doing laundry, preparing meals, putting on the make-up and getting ready for the day’s two shows. The 25 strong crew makes up a unique, tight-knit community, with special bonds that often crosses generations and a bond that is literally in their blood.

Growing up in the circus life C&M co-owner and ringmaster Simone Key started out as a unicyclist with her family, an act she still performs today. She is also the circus’ trapeze artist and coordinates the cook house, and is the social media person. She is married to the show’s general manager and big cat trainer Trey Key.

“Merriweather & Culpepper is as about as old-school as it gets without going around in wagons.” Key said, saying the troupe focuses on traditional, vintage acts.

As the former unicyclist ages, Simone’s dad Ron now runs the balloon sales and his daughter’s trapeze rigging. Simone’s brother Noah is a unicyclist in the show and also helps out with her trapeze rigging also.

Another example of circus being in their blood is the Luciana Loyal Repensky family, renowned for their bareback riding acts. The first Loyals came to America in 1932 to join the Ringling show. Natives of Italy with a long history of performing in numerous circuses around Europe, over the years this horseback riding act included various acrobatic formations and feats accomplished on horseback. The 10th generation of bareback riders at C&M Zefta and Christian performed a humorous show with their massive horses Frisian Bramba and Belgian Draught horse Dusty. They also run the pony rides before the show and assist with other acts.

And as with many small circuses, everybody has several different tasks to fulfil. Siblings Romario and Belhica Perez offer face painting before the shows and in the ring star on the tight rope and the spectacular daredevil Rings of Destiny. Elizabeth Ayala bewildered the audience with her hair hanging and mind-boggling foot juggling.

Proud of his long mutton chop sideburns, Leo Acton calls himself the hairiest clown, stating he started shaving when he was nine. Every morning at 9:30 a.m., he offers a free tour of the circus grounds to the public, introducing them to the animals, teaching about their routine and giving information about the show’s daily operations. And if that isn’t enough, the tour includes the astonishing tent-raising. It takes 11 men about half an hour to raise of the signature blue and white striped big top.

Both he and the circus’ advance clown Tina “Skeeter” Bausch graduated from the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Clown College together. For over 30 years, Skeeter travels ahead in her minivan, visiting schools, nursing homes, businesses, hospitals heralding "the circus Is coming!, telling tales of the animals and clown life." It is her lifestyle, her love and her passion to go from town to town, the perfect marketing tool to help fill the bleachers under the tent. She may be the last full-time advance clown in America, and keeps on doing what she loves in the hope to also educate the next generations about the joyful wonders of the circus.

While she is not a “clowning” clown, Skeeter received a lifetime achievement award from the International Clown Hall of Fame, for her decades of being an advance clown.

Sure, his dad had taken him to the circus when he was a child. But it wasn’t until 1999, when his interest in circuses was peaked again. Working as a journalist, local resident Lane Talburt’s interest began purely professionally – finding information on what makes the circus business work.

“The circus is a whole series of stories to be told,” Talburt said. “I have enjoyed learning about this very unique business. They [circus people] are in the business of entertaining people and they take that very seriously. They have a huge work ethic. The show must always go on.”

Having documented circus life for all those decades for the newspaper, circus magazines “The Bandwagon” and “White Tops,” and in video, the Dykes, Leo and Skeeter greet him as an old friend.

Lane Talburt’s video on the Culpepper & Merriweather circus visiting Clifton in 2019:

In the passing years, Talburt notices several big changes to circus life. The circus used to attract vagabonds, ex-convicts and winos who would stay three-four weeks. Now the workers are more family members and more dependable.

Back in the day, the big top was surrounded with smaller tents containing oddities and thrills like extremely tall humans, bearded ladies, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and jars filled with animals with genetic defects floating in formaldehyde. There were – usually rigged – games of chance, pretty ladies performing dances, exotic animals and musicians. Movies like David Lynch’s 1980 “Elephant Man” and Guillermo Del Toro’s 2021 “Nightmare Alley” explore this darker, exploitative side of carneys, vagabonds and vagrants surrounding circuses in the past. The side shows slowly made way for kid-friendly attractions.

The Davis’ treated their grandchildren from Dallas Fiona and Rhyne Davis to the whole deal, from watching the tent go up in the morning to face painting, pony rides, cotton candy, popcorn and coloring books before and during the show. This was their first circus visit, and they were excited. Rhyne even assisted Leo in the ring for the “Kung Foo Clown” skit.

And because of the maintenance costs, the petting zoos have dwindled. The Culpepper & Merriweather circus offers other fun things to do for the youth like a bounce house, a 22-foot slide, pony rides, face painting and a concession stand with all the traditional foods associated with the circus. The introduction of LED lighting made a huge impact for the performers, giving them better light in the ring.

While some traditional circuses folded, circus acts reinvented themselves, transitioning to the contemporary circuses like Cirque du Soleil, Ra Ra Zoo and Archaos, or downsizing and playing indoor venues. And there are still circus schools across the globe that teach tumbling, trapeze, acrobatics and juggling to those not born into a circus family but who crave the nomadic, performing life. Besides performers, modern day circuses require other skills too, like marketing, finances, light and sound, stage hands and managers.

With fewer and fewer circuses roaming the country after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down, the C&M circus can now probably call themselves America's last traditional Big Top Circus. And before COVID, the advent of television in the 1950s caused significant decreases in audience numbers, slowly eating away at a traditional form of entertainment since its beginnings in the late 1800s. After a 146 year run, the “Greatest Show on Earth,” the Ringling Brothers Circus pulled down their big top for the last time in 2017, citing high operational costs, changing public tastes, legal battles with animal rights groups.

The C&M circus is licensed and inspected by USDA and a veterinarian checks the animals monthly. The circus uses the services of vets all around the country.

The circus’ animals are captive-bred and the majority are rescues. Golden Tabby Tiger Delilah came to the circus after a roadside zoo was shut down by the United States Department of Agriculture and 2½ year old Wendell the lion was surrendered by an exotic pet owner after he grew too big to manage. Wendell replaced aging Frances.

Besides Key’s training – using positive reinforcement, which means favorite treats – Delilah serves as mentor to Wendell, teaching him what to do in the ring too. Each act is a training session the audiences gets to see live and no two animal acts are ever the same. The animals have the choice whether to cooperate or not – some days that means they do everything asked of them, and other days they feel like making their trainers look a little silly. Delilah, showing her age a bit, and preferred to rest and just be pretty than do tricks. Wendell was acting like the spoiled toddler he actually is, and was not inclined to get back into the cage, until Delilah showed him the way.

Since 1985, for 32 weeks of the year – roughly from March to the end of October, the Culpepper & Merriweather circus brings a 90-minute show to over 200, often small towns in 17 different states. The big top went to Itasca on Friday and Jewett on Saturday.

And as they close off the 2023 season, they will move to their winter base in Hugo, OK, also known as "Circus City, USA." There the circus performers transition into a more mundane life of working at the local hardware store, restaurants or grocery stores.

The city was founded in 1901 and named for the French novelist Victor Hugo. The Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus helped establish Hugo as an attractive winter home for tent-based shows. Besides animal sanctuaries for retired circus elephants and tigers, the town’s Mount Olivet cemetery has a section for circus personnel called “The Showman’s Rest,” with in the center a large headstone etched with a performing elephant upon two feet and the engraving “A Tribute to All Showmen Under God’s Big Top.”

Graves of the Kelly-Miller circus founder Obert Miller, elephant trainer John Carrol, chimp trainer Bonnie “Jean” Warner, queen of the bareback riders Zefta Loyal, and the Great Huberto can be found there.

Currently three active circuses call Hugo home; Carson and Barnes, Kelly Miller, and Culpepper & Merriweather. So until next spring, the first narrated lines of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 movie “The Greatest Show on Earth,” sum up what circus is all about:

“We bring you the circus, pied piper whose magic tunes greet children of all ages, from six to 60, into a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter and whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of blaring and daring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars. But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline and motion and speed.

“A mechanized army on wheels, that rolls over any obstacle in its path, that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling. A place where disaster and tragedy stalk the big top, haunt the backyard, and ride the circus train. Where death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear. A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds.

“That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the big tops, and of the men and women who fight to make it The Greatest Show on Earth.”


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