Background on Big Apple Circus

We’ve mentioned the Big Apple Circus nearly 50 times on this blog, and have reviewed several editions of the show but have not had as yet given its story a dedicated post.

I owe much to the BAC. I was an aspiring playwright and actor in NYC in the early 1990s when a good friend got me work at the circus writing grant proposals. Initially, I temped there, sometimes as a grant writer, sometimes as a receptionist, until I was hired full time to be the membership assistant, and finally membership manager. While I worked in the back office of this not-for-profit organization (and studied every aspect of the management while I was there), I naturally took the opportunity to immerse myself in the show and its culture as well. I had the opportunity to learn from the great circus historian Dominique Jando, who was on staff, as well as the performers, the house staff, and all the production people. In circuses, often as not, the workers who never even step into the ring are just as colorful and entertaining as the actual performers. It is a culture — like sailors or lumberjacks or firemen, and a host of other traditional occupations. Circus roustabouts have a close-knit and proud culture that likes being separate from society at large. They’re just as distinctively “circus” as any clown or acrobat, although I learned tons, as I say, from the performers, too. I mean, I learned from EVERYBODY — the box office people, the concessionaire, the guy who makes the posters. Randall Wreghitt, later a successful Broadway producer, was head of marketing at the time — I learned much from him, too. Finally, around 1995, unable to sit on the sidelines any longer, I left and started my American Vaudeville Theatre. So you see, the whole experience set me on a path that leads directly to where I am today.

Big Apple Circus was founded by hippie buskers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen. Binder actually had an MBA from Columbia, and started out in television, working in various production capacities on Julia Child’s The French Chef, The Merv Griffin Show, and Jeopardy! In the late ’60s he joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, where he met Larry Pisoni, subsequent founder of Pickle Family Circus, where Bill Irwin got his start), and Christensen, who had a juggling act. For a number of years Binder and Christensen bummed around Europe with a juggling act, doing street performance and occasionally gigging with shows and at festivals. In 1977 they returned to New York (Binder was from Brooklyn, Christensen was from Walla-Walla, Washington) and founded Big Apple.

At the time, their show was unique in many ways. The partners brought back from European circus much which they had seen and admired. Theirs was a back-to-roots circus. For one, it was under a big top, with real sawdust, at a time when remaining major American circuses like RBBB were playing civic centers. And it was an intimate, one ring show, allowing audiences to focus on one performer at a time, giving them full attention. Further, every seat in the house was close to the action. I can tell you from much experience how much more impressive it is to see an aerialist dangling dozens of feet above your head, as opposed to three football fields away, through binoculars.

The other innovative thing about their show was that it was not-for-profit. This was a new idea at the time, and remained new for decades. When I was in the development department, every day was a trial of communicating that to potential funders. It was a hard sell, at a time when it was getting harder. Years of Reagan-and-Bushism had eaten away at the spirit that had launched the NEA and state arts agencies in the ’60s and ’70s. Decision-makers were expecting arts organizations to behave like businesses. (Hello? “NOT for profit”?) I can’t even imagine what it’s like nowadays — it’s been a few years since I’ve done any fundraising.

From the outset, Big Apple Circus had several public-spirited programs in place: a circus school that served inner city kids, an influential “Clown Care Unit” that visited sick kids in hospitals, etc, and Christensen headed up these programs. Binder became ringmaster and the public face of the show as artistic director. In short order, their circus became a beloved New York institution, with many famous fans and supporters. Some of their performers, like Barry Lubin (a.k.a “Grandma”) became well known themselves. Christensen got movie and tv roles (Robert Altman’s Popeye, Annie, Heaven’s Gate, Chicago Hope).

Binder retired from full “active duty” circa 2009; Christensen in 2013. I can’t help but think their leadership mattered, because in 2016 the circus went bankrupt. The following year it was bought by new owners and began to be operated as a for-profit show. I haven’t seen the new incarnation; and at the moment, the show, like the rest of us, is in a limbo of quarantine.

I’ve reviewed a few editions of the show here on Travalanche; here is my review of the 2012 edition; here is the 2014 edition; and here, 2015. I actually liked and appreciated the show more in recent years. I hope it survives these rocky times!