Circus Smirkus: 25 Years of Running Home to the Circus!

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reviewed by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle, 6-20-2012

Circus Smirkus:  25 Years of Running Home to the Circus!, by Rob Mermin and Rob Gurwitt, published by The Circus Barn Inc., Greensboro, Vermont, 2012, 180 pages in soft cover, $20.

When the youthful performers of Circus Smirkus burst into the ring on July 1, it will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary for Orleans County’s own traveling tent show.  In celebration of that impressive milestone, Smirkus has published a lavishly illustrated autobiography.

Authors Rob Mermin and Rob Gurwitt have given their book all the energy of a circus, as their tale follows Mr. Mermin’s circus dreams from his clowning apprenticeship in Europe to the creation of what has become a launching pad of young circus professionals.

For many longtime residents of the Greensboro area, the book brings back sweet memories of Mr. Mermin and a motley troupe of amateurs performing on the town green on a hot summer day.

In those days the show was held together by the clowning of Mr. Mermin and the amazing talents of Rufus the Wonder Dog who, as an early review noted, displayed an uncanny ability to resist his master’s commands, pleas and entreaties.

When all seemed lost, Rufus would relent and perform what, to my best recollection, was his only actual trick — jumping through a hoop formed by Mr. Mermin’s arms.

Most people in the area knew in a general way that Mr. Mermin had a successful circus career in Europe before moving to Orleans County, but this book provides more details and a window into life in the “mud shows” that travel the continent’s back roads.

After years spent getting knocked about by rowdy donkeys, studying with master mimes Marcel Marceau and Étienne Decroux, and becoming a regular on a Danish television show, Mr. Mermin came to Vermont with the dream of reviving the small traveling circus in this country.

Mr. Mermin’s dream was quickly modified to include giving young performers an opportunity to have some of the experiences he had enjoyed, and Circus Smirkus was born.

The company’s name was provided by Mr. Mermin’s mother who offered the timeless advice, “Circus, shmircus — go get a real job.”  In the beginning, the show featured local teenagers who learned their skills while putting a show together.

Today, well-prepared young performers come from all over the country and around the world.  The company still pushes them beyond their areas of expertise, but today there are far more opportunities to learn circus arts.

Inside the colorful pages of Circus Smirkus the reader will get a behind-the-scenes look at training and touring.  Stories of mudslides and mired trucks make one realize how very useful elephants were to old-time tent shows.

The story of ringmaster Troy Wunderle’s efforts to get circus vehicles off one soaked circus lot make life under the big top sound anything but romantic.  Mr. Wunderle, Mr. Mermin’s protégé, now serves as artistic director of the show along with creative director Jesse Dryden.

There is plenty of romance in the book, though.  Mr. Mermin’s picture of the circus tent at night floating amidst a constellation of fireflies is particularly charming.

The business people who keep the company running from the backroom, to cooks in the “pie wagon,” to the coaches who urge their charges to feats they might have thought were beyond their ability are all given full recognition.  One of these is the former operations manager, Ozzie Henchel, whose bullheadedness kept a ramshackle fleet of circus vehicles on schedule for many tours.

At one point in the relatively early days a volunteer who had served in the Marines asked Mr. Henchel how many years he had been working for the circus.  Seven years, was the answer.

“And you’re not dead yet, sir?” the incredulous Marine responded.

Over the years Circus Smirkus has brought together performers from all over the globe and forged alliances with troupes in many countries, most recently with Cuban circus performers.

Mr. Mermin’s seat-of-the-pants style is best illustrated in one of the book’s best stories.  Intent on putting together an exchange with the Soviet Union, Mr. Mermin sets off without a visa.

He persuades a Finnish airline employee to let him get on a plane to Russia.  The employee warns that Mr. Mermin is liable to end up in Siberia.

Instead, Mr. Mermin juggles and clowns his way past security, with the help of a well-timed bribe, and forms long-lasting ties with one of the strongest circus traditions in Europe.

The episode and many other exciting, zany and tragic tales add up to a wonderful companion to an institution that has brightened the lives of troupers, staff members and audiences for a quarter of a century.

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

422 recommended
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