Big top roots
The Jaffa Shrine Circus features many performers who grew up in the business
By Keith Frederick, email@example.com
Tickets: $13 and $15 for adults and $9 and $12 for children. Tickets are available at the Jaffa ticket office in the building's basement or by calling 944-5351.
When the Royal Hanneford Circus takes center stage at the 70th annual Jaffa Shrine Circus beginning Monday at the Jaffa Shrine Center in Altoona, those in attendance would be forgiven for feeling like they're intruding on a family reunion.
According to the show's performers, their lives in the circus have made them one big, happy family.
"I was born into the business and so was my husband," says aerialist Kim Sue Valla. "My mom is still in the business - she trains animals.
"In the circus business, circus kids play together and grow up together - it's just like being in a town. Some people marry outside the business, but if you want to stay inside the business, it's easier to find someone who likes it, too."
Valla will perform her aerial act and a comedy trampoline act with her husband, Roger, who goes by the ring name Vlastek.
Benito Aguilar and his wife, Dulce, like many of the Royal Hanneford performers, were born into the business. According to Benito, he is a fifth generation circus performer, while Dulce is her family's sixth generation of performer.
The pair will be performing as a juggling act and again in a demonstration of "quick change magic," which Aguilar said they've been doing for about two years.
The Mexican-born performer takes his family on the road during the year, rarely taking time off from the circus business.
"Generally we're in Phoenix by November. We take December off and then we're back on the road in January," he said.
Circus performers start young. The Vallas' 7-year-old son, Vincent, already takes part in a unicycle act that they do at other appearances.
Aguilar's children are already training to continue the family tradition, he says.
"My son is 13 years old - he's practicing and next year he will probably want to be in my act," he said. "I have a daughter ... she's 5 years old and she's practicing contortion."
The early start isn't all that uncommon.
Mike Winn has never known a life outside of the circus. The Winn family has been in the business for generations.
"I've been doing this for 45 years," he said. "I started at age 3, walking on high wires."
A daredevil, Winn will be performing atop a "sway pole" at the Jaffa Circus. The sway pole is an acrobatic act wherein Winn and his wife, Deborah, perform tricks atop bending, swaying 70-foot-high poles - while hanging by their feet.
That might seem intimidating - if Winn's repetoire didn't also include riding motorcycles up cables, high wire walking and doing "skywalks" (tightrope walking across expanses like rivers and gorges).
"The phone call I was just on was from Patterson Falls, N.J., to do a skywalk across the falls," he said. "I've done it before, and they want me to do it again."
It's not just people who are the mainstay of the acts.
The animals are always a popular part of the Shrine Circus. But the elephants are a particular favorite, perhaps because of the elephant rides offered before each show.
This year's act will be run by Tim Frisco, an elephant trainer based out of Hugo, Okla. Frisco is bringing five Asian elephants to the Jaffa, including two smaller pachyderms sure to be a hit with children.
"There are two younger elephants, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old," Frisco said.
Although their training is completed rather quickly, he said the animals never stop surprising him.
"It takes about three months to train the young ones." Frisco explained. "(But) every day after that is them teaching you something new, (about) just how smart they are. They're very highly intelligent animals."
Animals of a smaller sort will also be on display.
David Zoppe and wife Susan Sheryll will present both a trained group of Afghan dogs and another act that includes trained Rhesus monkeys.
The dog act came about almost by accident.
"My wife loves Afghan dogs, and I said, 'We can't be stuck with these dogs without making some money.' We got one Afghan dog, then we got another one, and I said, 'Wait a minute, we can't just be carrying these dogs around - make an act with it.'"
Such flexibility is helpful, but Zoppe says that whenever a circus performer needs a hand, he just has to knock on the next trailer.
"It's great when you're on a show like this, where you have such a good group and everybody just gets along," Zoppe said. "It's just a different type of world than everybody else has."
Valla summed it up nicely.
"We are one big family," she said. "We like to eat together, we like to hang out. ... It's mainly about life. We're just making a living - but we're happy doing what we do."
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