By Judy Sheridan
Sometimes, people do run away and join the circus, reflects Simone Key, the daring young red-headed trapeze artist, ringmaster and co-owner of the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus, which will set up its Big Top in Aledo’s Bearcat Park next Tuesday, March 26.
More often, though, they grow into their lives as entertainers, traveling daily, learning to ride a unicycle along with their ABCs, improvising in front of an audience, pushing a needle and thread through sequins to bedazzle a costume.
“Once we had a couple come with us and sell tickets,” Key said. “He was a funeral director, and she worked at a pharmacy, and they wanted to see the sights.
“Every now and again you get people like that, but it seems like a lot of people we deal with are multi-generational.
“My grandfather was a ringmaster and magician, my aunts and uncles and mother were pretty much all in the circus in some capacity. My dad rode unicycles ... and we all learned.
“When I was little, my parents couldn’t keep me off the trapeze. Before I could remember, it was second nature.”
Key, 23, hangs and balances and swings on a short horizontal bar, suspended by ropes. Performing in a tent works better than in a building, she said, because the supports stay exactly the same.
She calls herself old school in her approach to the apparatus. Nets and safety harnesses take too much time to set up and get in the way.
“My bar is only about 15 feet off the ground, but it’s made more dangerous in that I don’t have a backup,” she said, “though some states require it by law.”
Key’s strength and flexibility allow her to do many different movements on the bar. She can balance on both her stomach and her back, hang from her heels, do the splits upside down.
The thing she’s most proud of — her signature move — is to hang from the bar by her neck.
Sometimes tricks are performed as the trapeze swings, requiring precise timing and catches.
The actual acts — that’s what a circus is all about, Key said. Spectators who suspect the little 30-member circus might prove “rinky-dink” will be surprised at the talent pool, she said, which circuses share.
Key downplays the spectacular nature of the famous three-ring circuses and stumps for the intimacy of the small.
“Nowadays, circuses have a lot of themes,” she said, “They do production numbers and dances. They’re more theatrical; there’s more flash.
“To me the theme is, ‘It’s a circus.’”
Spectators have different favorites when it comes to the acts, Key said. Occasionally it’s a small act, like the one her sister used to do with fantail pigeons.
The clowns are new this year, a male/female duo once employed by Ringling Brothers.
The big cats — a lion and brother/sister tigers — are always popular, although the male lion, Francis, has been known to spray the front row in response to the “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience.
“He’s hilarious, and he feeds off the crowd’s reaction,” Key said, “Trey tries to cut him off.”
Trey, Key’s 6-foot, 8-inch husband, is the only member of the show who didn’t grow up in a circus family, she said, but he had an uncle who was a huge circus fan.
After completing a degree in philosophy from Brown University, where he also played basketball, Trey signed up for Barnum and Bailey Clown College. Later, he managed the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus, buying it in 2001.
The two evening performances in Aledo are at the beginning of an eight-month western circuit that will encompass California, Oregon and Washington, eventually covering 17 states, Key said.
The troupe will get up at 5:30 a.m. and stay on the move, working seven days a week, averaging 500 shows a year.
They play in towns with populations of 5,000 or less, she said, because the people seem genuinely appreciative.
The circuit ends in Hugo, Okla., where the performers take four months off, “hibernating” in their winter quarters while the cats go to an exotic animal park.
The circus also makes a central U.S. circuit.
“Traveling is a lifestyle, and it’s not for everybody,” Key said. “You’re in a new place every day, and you don’t know where the Wal-Mart and the laundromat are.
“But to me, this is very normal, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I want to do it as long as I possibly can, because I don’t think circuses are going to be around much longer.
“The gas is higher, there are more permits every year, permits for the cats, insurance. In Minnesota, we have to have an electrical inspection before we turn on a generator.
“There are so many rules that someday we won’t be able to do what we do.”
Culpepper & Merriweather Circus in Bearcat Park, Aledo
Tuesday, March 26
Big Top set up, followed by free tour: 9:30 a.m.
Midway with bounce house and pony rides: 4 p.m.
90-minute performances at 5 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Discount tickets, $6 for kids, $10 for adults, are now on sale at Aledo City Hall, East Parker County Library, East Parker County Chamber of Commerce in Willow Park and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Weatherford.
Regular price tickets, $7 for kids, $13 for adults, on sale at the gate beginning at 4 p.m.
The event will benefit Aledo 4-H Club.