Kevin Burke performs all by himself in “Defending the Caveman.” But will he also stand alone in missing the circus?
Before he started defending husbands for crimes of domestic silliness in the one-man play he has performed more than 4,100 times, Burke was a Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus clown. He spent a year at the famed Clown College and then worked 618 shows during his year on the circus train in 1986.
That was long ago, but Burke is still an enthusiastic fan of the circus. “It’s one of those things that once you’re in, you’re all the way in,” he says. “We’ve all lived this life and we’re all still a part of it.”
And no man is an island. Michael Goudeau also is a Clown School grad. You may know him from years of juggling and chomping apples in Lance Burton’s show, or from Penn Jillette’s podcast, “Penn’s Sunday School.” But he, too, rode the circus train for two years after clown training in 1979.
“It was an event. It was an important thing in all our lives,” Goudeau says. “It was an amazing thing to be part of.”
TEARS OF A CLOWN?
Las Vegas might be the least likely city to shed a tear for the Ringling circus. With six Cirque du Soleil productions here — and three more that have come and gone since the first arrived in 1993 — you could argue we are the city most responsible for killing it off.
When Siegfried & Roy were still performing, the circus wasn’t even the Las Vegas pride and joy of its producer, Kenneth Feld. The magic duo’s spectaculars, presented by Feld at the Frontier and The Mirage, were groundbreaking and innovative for the Strip. But the Thomas & Mack Center was just another whistle stop for his circus.
None of this stopped the circus from rolling into the arena every June. But Feld recently announced “The Greatest Show on Earth” would come to an abrupt end in May, one that won’t even give it time to swing back through Las Vegas.
Years of court battles with animal rights activists took a toll in the arena of public perception, and the circus sped up plans to retire its performing elephants. But once they came out of the show last May, Feld said, already declining ticket sales “saw an even more dramatic drop.”
Burke finds it sad that tomorrow’s youngsters won’t witness a circus parade, or the three-ring spectacle everyone assumed would be here “long after we’re gone, because it was here long before we were here,” he says. “This is a show that’s run continuously for 146 years.”
Goudeau jokes that he and Jillette would go watch the circus when it was in town and think, ‘If things went poorly for two years, I could probably get a job here again.’ That was always our fallback plan.”
While Burke is a defender of Ringling’s elephant care, he’s quick to say the circus had larger problems.
“My impression is they tried to compete on a level with Cirque du Soleil, which they never needed to do,” he says. “They needed to stay the Great American Circus.”
Cirque first made a splash in Los Angeles in 1987, just a year after Burke was on the train for what turned out to be the peak of Ringling’s glory days. It would be years before Cirque would dent Ringling’s financial numbers. But the aesthetic shift was almost immediate: A circus with theatrical subtlety and wistful moments — and without animals.
“Committed animal activists seized on that: ‘This is how all circuses should be,’ ” Burke says.
As Cirque grew, Ringling shrunk. “Over the years I think Ringling got away from its core. And its core was a three-ring spectacular, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ And the show became smaller,” he says, eventually downsizing to one ring, making the cheap seats less of a value.
The last two years added BMX and subtitled the show “Circus Xtreme.” “It’s so disengenuous,” Goudeau says. “I think people who are nostalgic for the circuses of their youth and want to kind of sense that again. Ringling might have been better served to stick with that. Stick with the tradition and history.”
When the circus visited the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1972, it generated at least 11 local newspaper stories in a city that was then (in terms of the local population) one of the secondary markets it blanketed with two touring companies.
When it played the Thomas & Mack in 2015, it was only two months after many parents had already shelled out for a flashy new Feld show in the same arena: “Marvel Universe Live,” bringing comic-book heroes to life.
“Circus Xtreme” was a far cry from what Ringling was on the morning in 1985 when Burke woke up to hear his favorite Chicago DJ, Larry Lujack, jokingly tell listeners to rush down to ringmaster auditions.
He did just that. But his singing voice, or lack thereof, got him rerouted to Clown College. Ten weeks there taught him juggling, teeter-boarding, and how not to scare children. (“One of the reasons a birthday party clown can look so scary is that they don’t know how to fit their makeup to the muscles in their face,” Burke explains.)
“We were all in monster shape by the end of it,” he says. “An Army guy said it was tougher than basic training.” That helped when it came to sleeping in a 3½-by-6-foot train berth. “The Geneva Convention requires double that space for prisoners of war.”
“It doesn’t hit you (how small it is) until the first day, when you open the door to your room. You stand in the hallway and cry,” Goudeau says. “Two years later when you leave, you stand in the hallway and cry again, because you’re leaving this little tiny nest that you made.”
The circus DNA is woven into Las Vegas families such as that of Gregory Popovich, who now has his own show, “Popovich Comedy Pet Theater” at the V Theater.
“These are multigenerational acts. Their grandparents were doing it and they’re continuing the tradition,” Goudeau says. “You’d walk through the train and there would be a Polish car and Russian car and different smells from all these people that were cooking.”
Burke says he wishes Feld would have lived up to P.T. Barnum’s knack for ballyhoo, by giving the circus one great farewell tour. Or remember what he said one day, when he saw the young recruit constructing a comic prop.
There were two ways to finish it. A simpler, more easily maintained version that got a so-so laugh, or the trickier, high-maintenance version that got a bigger response.
Asked to help decide, Feld answered: “Up to you. But remember, it’s called ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ Not ‘The Most Adequate Show on Earth.’ ”