True Stories of High Adventure & Low Comedy

Whenever I am asked to describe the “real life” of the circus world, my tales only seem to enhance the myths and legends already inculcated in the minds of the general public. People are uninformed about circus history, yet curious about the lifestyle of the typical circus native.

In preparing a show about circus history, I concluded that my own story, embracing both the American and European traditions, would exemplify the customs of this peculiar culture.

And in American culture there are plenty of legends, myths, and misconceptions about the circus. I call them “myth-conceptions.” Are circus people distrustful, dishonest, disreputable? Are all little kids afraid of clowns? Why is the word “circus” synonymous with “chaotic?” Does anyone really “run away to join the circus?”

What is the reality behind the myth, mirth, mayhem, mud, and magic?

I ran away to the circus as a teen in the late 1960’s. The subsequent forty years led to clowning in the mining towns of Wales with The Wildest Show On Earth; to mule wrangling above the Arctic Circle with Sweden’s Circus Scott; to riding with the Magyars in the Hungarian State Cirkusz; and entertaining royalty in Copenhagen’s famous circus building by the Tivoli and in the circus palaces of Russia.

I ran away from the circus to mime with Marcel Marceau, graduate college, teach, write and direct. But sawdust remained in my veins, and I found myself appointed Dean of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. Ultimately I founded my own circus company, Circus Smirkus, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

If my misadventures seem compelling, perhaps the degree of my early daydreams and wanderlust speaks in kind to common youthful aspirations. I took what talents I had and what skills I could develop, and sallied forth to an unconventional lifestyle of renewable adventure.

The appeal of intrepid vagabonding! Circus is surely an extension of our natural urge to play, which then becomes an exuberant entertainment based on personal achievement. Circus is a fascinating global sub-culture, still vibrantly inhabited by an itinerant race with its own history, traditions, and “sawdust in their veins.”

Circle of Sawdust is my first-hand account as cultural ambassador from the realm of dreams and the world of circus.

— Rob Mermin

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