The circus is back.
Not Barnum and Bailey. The circus that billed itself as the “Greatest Show on Earth” ended its 146-year run last May. But the Venardos Circus, which has been around less than five years and bills itself as “The Little Circus That Could,” opens a three-week run here under what might be called The Modest Top.
The red-and-white striped tent set up in the parking lots of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre has a 300-person capacity. It will be the site of 17 performances of what Venardos describes as mix of circus and Broadway show.
To drum up some publicity, ringmaster Kevin Venardos made the rounds last week, visiting local groups, appearing on television and radio, convincing at least one media member — First Coast News’ Curtis Dvorak — to be a part of the opening night.
This makes sense. Dvorak spent nearly two decades as something akin to a circus act, playing Jaxson de Ville and arriving on football fields via everything from zip lines to parachutes.
The ringmaster also invited yours truly to participate, insisting he could come up with something that would play to my strengths. I declined, partly because I plan to be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — and mainly because, while some readers have called me a clown, I have no entertainment strengths.
I thought my 16-year-old daughter might be disappointed. She and some of her friends have a sudden interest in the circus, thanks to the movie “The Greatest Showman,” a musical that loosely tells the story of P.T. Barnum. She has seen it three times, including the sing-a-long version. The soundtrack is on repeat in our house.
But she was horrified at the thought of her father in the circus, eventually saying it would be OK, but only if I didn’t wear the wrong outfit. I asked her to define “wrong.”
“Don’t show too much skin or wear too much makeup,” she said.
I found this quite amusing, pointing out that this sounds exactly like what a parent might tell a teenager.
If you go to one of 17 performances here, rest assured you’ll see real performers with real talents. What you won’t see (beyond me) are lions, tigers and elephants.
When the Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down, its demise was traced to declining revenues, high operating costs and costly legal battles with animal rights groups. PETA celebrated the news, tweeting about the end of “the saddest show on earth.”
Before he is even asked about this, Venardos brings it up, defending the treatment of circus animals and hinting that they could become a part of his show someday.
“The fact that we don’t have any animals in the show — right now — is actually at least a starting point for a conversation with some people,” Venardos said. “I’m not afraid to upset people. But I want to build bridges.”
Venardos spent five years with the Ringling Bros.
In 2003, at age 23, he was the youngest ringmaster in the history of the circus and, according to People Magazine, one of the 25 Hottest Bachelors.
He is 42 and married now. His wife is the producer. Their circus has a 15-person crew, each with numerous talents and duties – making Venardos Circus, at least in size, quite different from Barnum and Bailey with a 500-person crew, riding on a mile-long train.
He has fond memories of that train. As a child, he spent Saturday mornings with his father — a CBS News vice president whose jobs included being Walter Cronkite’s senior producer — building elaborate model train sets in their basement. After retiring, his father rode the circus train with him for a year.
His father died in 2011. His mother, he says, still asks, “When are you going to get a real job?”
In many ways, he feels like he was destined to have his current job.
He graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a degree in musical theater. His dream then was to perform on Broadway. His dream now is to perform all across America, keeping alive something that goes back centuries.
At the start of our interview, I asked him how this circus is different from previous ones. He gave an answer. But near the end, he came back to that question and said it isn’t different.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “It’s just a little group of humans in a little tent we put up. And they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.”
He paused, looked around the Starbucks in Riverside as if trying to keep a secret.
“Shhhh,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone.”
He continued, saying that “the magic comes from how you reinvent it, how you make it vital today.”
When Ringling Bros. shut down, many of his friends lost their jobs and were wondering about their future, the future of the circus.
“Is it still important?” he said. “Is it something people are going to continue to want to lay out a few sawbucks to enjoy? I believe they will.”