By: Michael Knox | Independent Tribune
Published: March 07, 2012
Growing up, people often referred to me as a freak of human nature. So it sort of makes sense that I actually traveled with the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus as a child.
While most parents were sending their kids away to summer camp, I spent my summers traveling the east coast with my grandparents, who worked for the circus. I’m actually a third-generation circus traveler.
My grandparents, Charles and Alice Harris, started everything, joining the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus, with my grandmother selling souvenirs and my grandfather working as the circus welder. The second generation consisted of my aunts and uncles (my mother did not enjoy the traveling circus life at all), who included an elephant rider, a clown and a concession stand salesman who also helped put up the circus tent.
As a little boy I got to experience traveling from town to town, helping put up the circus tent — the old-fashioned way, with elephants pulling up the tent, not this newfangled hydraulic stuff you see today — and when my grandparents weren’t paying attention I’d often hitch a ride on my “pet” elephant, Pete.
Those days of nostalgia still stick with me as some of the best times of my life. I got to work with the clowns, sell cotton candy and be a part of the excitement.
That’s why I’m looking forward to the Piccadilly Circus coming to town at the Cabarrus Arena & Events Center. Oh sure, it’s not an old-fashioned tent circus, like the one I helped put up. But it’s keeping the tradition alive. It’s a culture I’m very fond of, and when I took a break from newspapers, I delved into that world again as a filmmaker.
Naturally, my first project was “Tearing Down the Tent,” a documentary that had my friend, Jamie Reel, run away and join the circus for a week. He got to do all the things I did as a child: riding the elephant, helping make cotton candy and working with the clowns. He also got to do some things I didn’t get to do until I was an adult, including working with the camels and standing in the Moto-Globe of Doom with a motorcycle racing around my head at 35 mph.
It makes me happy that these traditions are being kept alive with my own family circus, now called Cole Bros. Circus, still on the road putting up the tent and traveling from town to town. And even if Piccadilly Circus doesn’t put up a tent, choosing to operate in a coliseum instead, it still keeps that tradition alive.
This year’s performance of Piccadilly Circus looks to have clowns, elephants and even its own version of The Moto-Globe of Death.
And it’s funny: Something about the circus still makes me feel young. When we were filming the documentary, I remember feeling connected to the circus, making cotton candy and popcorn one of my main meals on a daily basis — and setting the stage for potential diabetes!
Those memories helped me make the “Tearing Down the Tent” documentary, which is a love letter to my childhood. And the best compliment I get from people when they watch it is, “Wow! Now I want to go see a real circus.”
Hopefully more people will feel that way, especially after seeing the Piccadilly Circus this week. It’s a grand tradition full of freaks and clowns and energy and fun.
I just wonder if they have a human cannonball.