Big Top in Town


Any reference to the “L.A. Circus” may at first seem to be a comment on the hectic lifestyle of this city. But the L.A. Circus is also the name of something quite different--a local cultural institution that provides an antidote to the headaches of city life in the form of free world-class, one-ring circus performances in neighborhoods from Pacoima to Venice to East Los Angeles.

The show, which also includes a circus-skills workshop for kids, may be seen Saturday at the Granada Hills Recreation Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“Just as San Francisco has the Pickle Family Circus, New York its Big Apple Circus and Montreal its Cirque du Soleil, Los Angeles now has the L.A. Circus,” says the group’s co-director Tom Conley.

A project of the Los Angeles Foundation for the Circus Arts, with support of the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department, it offers performances that include aerialists, acrobats, clowns, jugglers and animal acts.


One kind of juggling you’ll see on Saturday has gotten its practitioner into the “Guinness Book of World Records.” Chester Cable uses a 10-foot-long table weighing 130 pounds in his juggling act. Cable, who is also the master mechanic of the circus, juggles the table. With his feet.

Another novelty is that the L. A. Circus’ ringmaster is actually a ring mistress, named Stephanie Neithe. “One of her other jobs is that she sings on the trapeze,” says the group’s artistic director, Wini McKay. “We like to show the girls who attend (the performances) that jobs in the circus are interchangeable: Ringmasters aren’t all boys.”

Of local interest Saturday is that Debbie Williams, a Van Nuys movie stuntwoman, will perform as an aerialist (one who swings around on a rope like a flag in a hurricane). She comes by her interest in circus performing naturally--she’s the daughter of an elephant trainer.

The idea of passing along circus skills to a new generation is important to Conley and McKay. He points out some interesting things about the role of the circus in American culture, including: “Uncle Sam himself, whose origins are from the pen of cartoonist Thomas Nast, was modeled upon [an] early-American circus owner and clown Dan Rice.” He adds that mainstream American phrases such as “climbing on the bandwagon” and “throwing your hat in the ring” come from the circus.


McKay, meanwhile, has noticed that the people who come to see the L.A. Circus are often from countries where live circus shows are commonplace. “By the time our L.A Circus skills workshops for the children are finishing up,” she says, “even the mothers and fathers have joined in learning how to juggle.”

The instruction, which over the last few years has been given to thousands of local kids, includes ball juggling, hoop spinning, tumbling, clowning and “web,” a safe version of the performance that Debbie Williams will give Saturday.

“The kids, from age 2 to the teens, really light up with the pride of accomplishment,” McKay says.

Conley and McKay believe that the circus fans, and performers, of the future will come from many of the neighborhoods in which the L.A. Circus performs--neighborhoods whose children rarely get to see live performances of any kind.

They also report that, due to budget cuts at the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, Saturday’s program in Granada Hills and an upcoming one at Van Nuys Recreation Center, on June 28, may be their last two neighborhood presentations.


L.A. Circus, on Sat. at Granada Hills Recreation Center, 16730 Chatsworth St. Circus-skills workshop for kids, 10 a.m.-noon; circus performance, 1-1:45 p.m. and 3-3:45 p.m. Free. (213) 485-2437.