New Generation of Families Juggle Love and Careers Under the Big Top


Laurie Reker, with the greatest of ease, fell for Jid Gutty on the flying trapeze.

Marcia and Luis Palacio domesticated one another; now, the two lovebirds train tigers together.

Circus performers traditionally have kept their acts in the family, handing down taming, teetering and tight-wire techniques for many generations. Now, “outsiders"--performers who weren’t born into circus dynasties--are juggling love and careers under the Big Top, too.

At the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, such acts include The Palacios; The Flying Guttys (He’s “circus,” she’s “outsider”); Tommy and Tammy Parish, natives of Neodesha, Kan., who love to clown around together; and American-Canadian animal act Lee and Judith Stevens, who consider themselves parents of 16: two kids and 14 baboons.


“Before, when a child was born into a circus family, it was taken for granted they would continue the act,” Judith Stevens said. “Now, you’re here because you are very good--not just because you were born here.”

“My father worked 43 years at something he couldn’t stand,” her husband added. “We’re here because we want to be.”

The Stevenses met in Canada in February, 1985, while working at a different circus. They married four months later; two years after that, they took the baboons on their “honeymoon"--a working trip to Bermuda.

“We’re just normal people doing unusual jobs,” Judith said. “In a lot of ways, it can be real hard; we never go home from work.”

The Stevenses often travel with their sons, Alexander, 3 1/2, and Sebastian, 2. In all, 20 children--newborn to 14 years old--tour with this community-on-wheels, which employs 150 performers and 200 other workers. School-age children study twice a day with Natalie Osbourne, a dancer and certified teacher. Younger kids can stay at the traveling day-care center.

“It’s a special day for a child to go to the zoo or the circus; my kids have that every day,” Judith said.

Alexander sometimes appears in the baboon act. “He loves to do it,” his mother said.

But the Stevenses are no stage parents. Judith fantasizes that her sons will grow up to be doctors or lawyers: “Isn’t that always a mother’s dream?”

Marcia Palacio’s mother never dreamed that her daughter would work in a cage with three tigers, two lions, three leopards, two bears, two hyenas and a wolf. Neither, for that matter, did she.

“My father’s never seen the circus,” said Palacio, who is from Staines, England. “When my mother saw me work, she went through two packets of cigarettes. I heard her scream.”

It all started nine years ago, when the former ballet dancer, then known as Marcia Spence, met animal trainer Luis Palacio, a native of Tijuana.

First, they became a couple; then, they became co-workers. Marcia started tending baby animals, learning the ropes from Luis, who had worked for circuses since he was 11 years old. In 1988, she stepped into the cage with her husband and the big beasts.

“I was terrified,” she recalled.

But she went into it with her eyes open.

On July 18, 1986, during another circus in England, Marcia Palacio had watched in horror from outside the cage as a lion bit and slashed Luis. The badly mauled trainer finally returned to work in May, 1988, with a jagged scar across his jugular.

“Marcia went through the whole thing,” Luis said. “She was there when it happened and there through the surgery. She nursed me and learned to change the tracheotomy and do injections.”

After he recovered, Ringling had an opening for a two-person act. Despite the job hazard she had witnessed, Marcia wanted to try it.

Now, Luis performs with several animals at the front of the cage while Marcia controls the remaining animals at the rear. At the finale, Marcia rides a tiger around the ring.

“It’s very difficult to separate the relationship inside the cage and outside,” said Luis. “Sometimes, when she makes a mistake, I scream at her; that’s how I was taught. But I’m growing.”

The two relax by sightseeing. But even a brave lion-trainer has fears. Asked if they saw the Empire State Building while working in New York City, Luis shrugged.

“We’d have to go up,” he said. “I don’t like going up.”

Going up is no problem for Jid and Laurie Gutty. Flying 32 feet above the floor is their equivalent of a day at the office.

Laurie had just graduated from high school in Pompano Beach, Fla., nine years ago when she saw Jid, a native of Bogota, Colombia, practicing his trapeze act at an Orlando campground. At first they were just friends; it was the trapeze that made her heart flutter.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “Something told me it was a way for me to do something special.”

The first time she flew, “I cried. I was very scared of the height. But I knew in my heart I could do it somehow,” she said.

After years of physical conditioning, Laurie became the only American woman to master a triple aerial somersault.

Now, Jid is her husband, as well as her catcher. His face lights up when he talks about the circus--and about his wife’s accomplishments.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “When an audience responds, when people like me, I feel proud. And I’m proud of what she’s doing too.”

How do they balance the demands of living and working together?

“You have to communicate a lot,” he said. “You need to talk to each other all the time on the trapeze.”

“It’s very hard,” said Laurie. “You have to separate your personal life from your professional life. And you still have to trust each other: Even though you’re arguing, you still know he’s there to catch you.”

The danger is even present for Clown Alley veterans. Tommy Parish ticks off accident stories involving stilts and a runaway elephant cart.

“Nothing serious--a few broken bones,” said Parish, whose clown cowlick and bulbous, red nose belie a modest, shy personality.

But the pratfall is no pitfall for a two-clown couple. The Parishes became hard-core circus fans while growing up together in Kansas.

Twelve years ago, Tammy Parish was attending “regular-people college” when her husband-to-be went to clown college in Florida and won a job with Ringling. She followed his career path a year later. Since then, they estimate that they have played to more than 55 million people.

Their clowning carries over into their personal lives.

On Valentine’s Day, Tammy sang her undying love for Tommy, accompanied by an original accordion arrangement. Then, she hit him with a pie that was hidden in a big, red heart. “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but Tom was touched anyway,” she says.

The Parishes say they have it better than other circus couples. When tempers flare, noted Tammy, “We have access to foam hammers.”