The Littlest Show Under the Big Top

It doesn't look much like a circus. Just three trailers parked in a schoolyard. One for the animals. One for a four-person troupe. One for their props and costumes. All bare of lettering and quiet, asleep, latched and tied to some human presence by outdoor extension cords crawling to far outlets.

"But you should be here when we're setting up," promises Mitch Kincannon. That's when a chrysalis moves and tradition blossoms. "There's a backdrop that says 'Royal Lichtenstein Giant Quarter Ring Sidewalk Circus' with fabric balloons sewn by my own hands.

"We have a red-and-yellow striped ring, a quarter the size, but just like Circus Vargas'. There's the anticipation of the audience, the knowing that this is a beginning. Then comes our opening, the traditional coming, always a clown and for us it's Nick Weber dressed in an Elizabethan tunic and white face.

"Then circus magic begins."

That's how it has begun for 220 performances in the current tour of this smallest show on Earth. Their season nears an end today at Caltech. Sunday, it closes with a 3 p.m. show at St. John Vianny Church in Hacienda Heights.

Then trailers and troupe trundle to Santa Barbara and summer headquarters at the Jesuit Novitiate. After two months of rest and rejuvenation, the sorcery and fantasies will stir again.

"We've played everything from a rowdy school in Chicago where we cut the show short, to a party at Taliesin West (near Phoenix) given by Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright," said Kincannon, 33, a drama and dance major who dropped out to run away and join this circus when it played his University of Montana.

Typically, the one-ring circus plays churches, schools, benefits, shopping centers, college fund-raisers and company picnics.

Of course, Kincannon said, none of the performers is royalty nor from Liechtenstein: "We spell it 'Lichtenstein' then have an excuse to announce: 'We're the world's smallest circus from the world's smallest country and performed by the world's smallest minds.' "

Some years the troupe is eight performers but this season it is down to four, plus one miniature horse, two mutts and a pair of spider monkeys: "We did have a one-man trapeze but he cracked a tooth doing the 'Iron Jaw' trick and walked right out of the show."

The circus allure, however, is perennial.

"It is that unique feeling from being a part of something that doesn't belong to anyone," Kincannon explained. "Circus is elusive. It belongs to one person today then disappears to belong to someone else tomorrow."

The Royal Lichtenstein was born from the California street scene of the '60s. Nick Weber, with degrees in theology and theater, was busking in San Jose. Here, he thought, was a clean vehicle for life's messages.

So he formed the circus with some financial assistance and much physical support from the California Province of Jesuits. That was 16 years ago. The circus remains Weber's ministry.

It has made six complete tours of the nation. There were only seven people for a show in Olympia, Wash., but 1,500 at an Indianapolis high school. They have worn out one set of trailers. The current four--ringmaster-magician Weber, business manager-clown Kincannon, mime-balancer Jody Ellis and juggler Kelly Robertson--keep the circus pennies above or below breaking even.

But more important, they're maintaining the essence of the ministry.

"The payoff is creating an atmosphere for kids," Kincannon said. "It's their experience as we show the moral of the circus by transforming a dull parking lot into something magical, another world.

"The circus always has had this ability to transcend the average, boring, dull life."

One other facet of circus life remains unchanged from its 19th-Century salad days.

"We're short of performers," Kincannon said. "We'd be happy to hear from anyone who might like to run away and join our circus."

Performances at the Ramo Auditorium at Caltech, Chester Ave., Pasadena, at noon and 3:30 p.m. today. Ticket information: (818) 356-4652.

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