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February 11, 1973 - Image 4

Resource type:
Michigan Daily, 1973-02-11

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b~ackistage! v
circus people

Number 75 Page Four

Sunday, February 1 1, 1973

AND SO I WENT--to the stench of
elephant shit and cotton candy, to
the sound of brass bands and Caramel
Corn vendors, and to the sight of box-
ing afghans, triple flips and grease-
painted jesters. But the circus was not
the same. I remembered myself ten
years earlier in New York - mouth
drooping, heart pounding, and laugh-
ing hysterically.. . now I was bored.
I feared that I had fallen over the
edge . . . into the realm of sophistica-
tion and respectability.
No, I had not outgrown the circus!
The ringmaster bellows, "Ladies and
gentlemen and children of all ages."
No, I had not outgrown the circus!
It was this fear that drove me back
to the Shrine Circus at the Michigan
State Fairgrounds in Detroit; driven
back with a clearer head and a realiz-
ation that I had to look at the circus
with a new perspective. Behind every
surrealistic superman and cantanker-
ous clown was a real person. Talk to
them as real people not as performers;
then see the circus again . . . I had
been expecting too much.
And so I went.
THE SCENE is confused and the ac-
tion moves quickly.
Clowns in street clothes look like es-
capees from a Fellini nightmare as
they dart back and forth from the are-
na to their dressing rooms. Two bare-
chested musclemen speak rapidly in
Spanish as they volley a ping pong ball
on a makeshift table. Elephants are
drawn to the rings, a pensive game of
chess is in progress, and a shapely
young girl in a red glitter costume
passes by. Everything is out of place,
but nobody seems to notice.
Activity backstage at a circus seems
distorted to one used to viewing a cir-
cus from the stands. The clowns aren't
funny - even though their paint-on
smiles are still intact; the strong man
sits reading the Free Press, and the
girl in the red glitter costume doesn't
swing through the air. She is out of
breath as she says, "Most people think
we are inferior because we live in trail-
ers, travel around and dress in flashy-
funny costumes, but in many ways our
lives are better . . . we become braver,
respect our associates and have closer
families. In my family our lives depend
on each other."


Co wns,



handle the crowd, and today's crowds
are more. sophisticated - you can't
bamboozle them . . . but clowns are in
luck - people today want to laugh
more than ever."
Oopsey, Robert McNea, is 43 years
old and proud that he is "one of the
few people around who is doing exact-
ly what I like." He is upset that some
people look at the clowns as inferior
to the other acts in the circus and ex-
plains that "I am an artist and I am
funny only because I work at it . . .
clowning is one of the oldest art forms,
going back to the Roman Colosseum
. . . even the very act of painting a
face is an art."
People assume that Oopsey is funny
all the time but this is not the case.
"I was born a Gemini - two people -
I don't want to be a clown to my four
kids and wife . . . you have to have a
split personality to make it as a clown
and a 'person' at the same time ...
"As Shakespeare said, 'it takes a wise
man to play a fool'."
Oopsey seems satisfied with his last
comment. He realizes that he has ade-
quately proven that he is more than
a bumbling fool. This is very import-
ant to him. His big red painted smile
becomes broader as he says goodbye.
TARZAN ZERBINI is allegedly the
star of the Shrine Circus, and al-
though he is reluctant to admit it. his
words and actions give him away. Zer-
bini, who resembles an Italian John-
ny Weissmuller, drills a whole in a
prop as he describes his act.
"I have stuck my head in lion's
mouths, carried tigers on my back .. .
all without props . . . Clyde Beatty had
whips, guns and chairs - Zerbini has
Zerbini is the latest in a chain of
eight generations of lion tamers. He
has been working with wild animals
all his life and feels that "it would take
thirty years to explain how to train
the lions and tigers in my act . . . I

am with them 24 hours a day and.only
perform for 25 minutes."
Even though he admits that wild
animals are unpredictable Tarzin de-
nies that he is afraid. "If you die in a
lion cage or if you die in a car, you
still die someday."
Zerbini unconsciously expands his
chest as he adds, "I was hurt only
once, when I was mauled by a lion
I received 200 stitches and was
back in the cage two days later . .. I
am not afraid of anything." His chest
expands once again.
What can you say to someone who
is not afraid of anything? Is he a liar?
Can you dare him to jump out of. an
airplane without a parachute? Do you
ask him if he is crazy? No, these are
not questions you ask someone with
claws for fingernails, fangs for teeth
and who gnaws on tiger bones between


David Margolick

Oopsey: "Clowning is one of the oldest art forns ... even the act of painting
a face is an art."

Sasha Armour is 15 years old and
looks and acts at least twenty. Now
dressed in blue jeans she in no way
resembles the girl in the red glitter
costume that flew on the trapeze just
moments before. Along with the rest
of her family, Sasha is part of the
aerial act of the show. Although she
could not adequately decide if she is
happy having lived her whole life in
the circus, she seems secure in stating,
"I know that I am different than other
people my age, this is the same for
everyone in the circus . . . I guess we
are all just a bit insane."
jUGO ZUCHINI sits resting his chin
on a strong muscular arm. He sits
quietly, undisturbed by the confusion
around him. His black eyes are sta-

tioned on a chess board. It takes a few
seconds to associate this small mus-
cular frame and dark Roman face with
the man I had seen shot out of a can-
non just moments earlier.
A bright silver truck (1946 Diamond
chassis) pulls onto the side of the cen-
ter ring. The silver red tipped cannon
sits nestled on top. A man dressed in
a skin-tight white suit and red hat
climbs into the cannon. The ringmaster
asks for complete silence, the band
raises the suspense-a loud exnlosion
-a human form is thrust 150 feet
through the air - the band strikes
a triumphant tune - a man behind me
whispers, "He's got balls." .. .
Zuchini is more than happy to in-
terrupt his chess game to talk. He
leads us to'dressing room No. 5, closes
the door, places himself on the edge of
a wooden table and begins by empha-
sizing the fact that he is a college
graduate from the University of Flor-
ida with a degree in engineering.
His father, Edmund, who owned a
circus in Italy, designed the very act
that he nerforms today. The family
was brought to the United States in
1922 by the Ringling Brothers.
"I admired my father all my life and
felt that the best way to honor him was
to follow in his tradition."
Zuchini is far from eager to describe
the mechanics of his act since "it
would take a lot of the suspense out
of it." Suffice it to say that he is shot
through a tubular piston by air pres-
"The Human Cannonball" wears no
nadding excent for a white leather
suit and a red leather mask. In all the
years that he has been performing, he
has incurred only one major iniurv.
Yet even after breaking a leg in mul-
tiple places and totally dislocating his
back, Zuchini returned to the act with-
out reservations. "It is like any other
business , . . there are risks, but the
applause and admiration make it all
Zuchini was not sure why he chose
this line of work. Although he could
have lived a nice suburban white collar
existence as an engineer, he chose the
bone splintering job of being shot out
of a cannon. "After being shot out of
a cannon nothing else seems to be ex-
(40PSEY THE CLOWN rushes back-
stage in a chartreuse costume re-
plete with floppy shoes, flowered hat
and baggy pants. He says that he
would be more than happy to talk to

street pants, his white face still decor-
ated with a big red smile and jutting
eyebrows, Oopsey lights up a Kool and
reflects on his life with the circus.
"I ran away from home in St. Thom-
as, Ontario, at the age of 12. I had al-
ways wanted to be a clown and still
enjoy it 31 years later."
His Toby Tyler-type tale seems too
exciting to be true. Yet Oopsey Is to-
tally serious, even as his words come
out from that seemingly indelible red
"Part of the job is learning how to

Tarzan seems to want to finish the
interview and bitterly adds, "People
like you come to the circus to feel su-
perior to the clowns or to see people
like me bleed."
T had talked to the supermen and the
fools, smelled their body odor,
heard them stumble when they spoke,
seen them get nervous over a simple
interview. They were real people, al-
though, at times, some would not be
willing to make this concession. I had
returned to the circus for this purpose
and was satisfied with what I found.
And so I left.
Martin Porter is Magazine Editor of The










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