Friday, March 23, 2012
Carson & Barnes Circus comes to Allen
This weekend's show will benefit the Kiwanis Club of Allen.
Big-top thrills are not just for movies and memories. Circuses have dwindled since their mid-20th century prime, but they haven't vanished.
And the "biggest" indicator is in town.
"It's more of a circus feel because, in our opinion, if you don't have a tent and an elephant, you're not really a circus," said Barbara Miller-Byrd, third-generation owner of Carson & Barnes Circus, self-proclaimed the world's biggest big-top show. "We definitely have a beautiful tent, we definitely have elephants and you're about 50 feet away from the action."
Carson & Barnes Circus returns to the DFW area with a three-day stint at the Millennium Business Park in Allen. The 76-year-old circus will pitch its 142-feet-by-131-feet tent Friday for seven weekend shows.
The circus, which every year travels to about 15 states around the nation from March through November, entertains spectators with a tradition that lives on through trapeze acts, clowns and, cotton candy.
"We've just got a well-rounded circus that features all the things that you would think of when you think of a circus," Byrd said. "We welcome [guests] from age 2 to 102, and we think that we can entertain many generations at the same time."
That generational approach stems from the circus's evolution over the years. Now stationed out of its winter quarters in Hugo, Okla., Carson & Barnes began as a small-time "dog-and-pony" show in 1937 in Smith Center, Kansas.
Byrd's grandfather, Obert Miller, father D.R. Miller, and uncle founded the Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. Circus. When D.R. entered into a partnership with a man named Moore in the 1960s, they changed the name because D.R. "just liked the way it sounded," Byrd said.
The central circus crew, including the animals, has lived in Hugo since 1941. This year, the circus will present more than 200 performances around the country, moving close to 200 members and 70 vehicles about 50 miles every day to the next destination.
"When it turns spring and starts to get green, we get itchy feet, we're ready to get on the road again and travel all over the U.S. and entertain people," Byrd said, referencing meal trucks, mechanical trucks and the rest of the Carson & Barnes troupe. "It's like a little city moving down the road."
That "city" also includes a water department, an electrical department, a four-truck rolling garage, and mechanisms that shoot the big top skyward. At every stop, a hydraulic crane lifts the star-spangled tent from its storage compartment in a specially-designed truck, setting the stage for another show.
The circus features both traditional and modern acts, such as this year's motorcycle ride across a table near the tent's top. Its most recognizable act rests on the trunks of three Asian elephants, some of the last remaining of the endangered species.
D.R. and his wife, Isla, who Byrd said "just really loved elephants," decades ago established the nonprofit Endangered Ark Foundation to prevent the elephant breed from dying off. A portion of circus proceeds goes toward maintaining a Hugo facility that now houses and cares for nearly 30 elephants, the second-largest genetic pool for Asian elephants in North America.
"Its mission is to save the Asian elephant so that ... it [isn't] only rich people who can fly to India [who can] appreciate their beauty and appreciate that they're still here," said Byrd, who has traveled with the circus every year outside of her time at the University of Oklahoma. "It's kind of like a Social Security system only it's hopefully not going broke like the human one."
Alex Acero, the "King of Circus Comedy" clown, returns for a third straight year as the show's headliner. Born in Brazil, Acero comes from a long line of circus performers, and previously spent time on "Clown Alley" with the world-renowned Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Acero is featured throughout the Carson & Barnes show as a "running thread that ties it all together," Byrd said.
"Usually by the end of the show, they're chanting his name," she said.
But though the Carson & Barnes big top is staked in tradition, searches for talent like Acero have evolved with the times. Byrd and her daughter, manager Traci Byrd-Cavallini, use social media sites like Facebook and YouTube to recruit performers.
"Each season, we try to find new, bigger, better, and more exciting acts," Cavallini said. "We like variety."
Such a diverse ensemble these days is literally at their fingertips. Instead of traveling all over the world for months as their family predecessors did, they can conduct their search from Hugo. Mexico is home to the best trapeze acts, while premier high-wire walkers generally come from Columbia, and Eastern Europe is loaded with acrobats and gymnasts, Cavallini said.
"It's interesting because each region of the world, even sometimes each country, seems to feature certain acts," said Cavallini, who with her sister Kristin Byrd-Parra manages the circus's business side.
But simple juggling acts, even YouTube hits, don't always make the cut. Performance is just a small piece of the perseverance required for life on the road.
"We get countless emails every day," Byrd said of circus hopefuls. "A lot of them I don't even consider because most of them are not really circus performers. You really need to have a circus background, to have the experience traveling and living like we do, before you apply. It's a hard life. You have to love it to make it."
As long as their audiences love it, Carson & Barnes should continue to make it. Over the past 76 years, the circus has entertained millions with more than 30,000 performances that featured contortionists, jugglers, horses, dogs, and, of course, elephants.
It consistently performs in DFW destinations Allen, Denison, DeSoto, Garland, Lewisville, Rockwall, and Van Alstyne, with continuous support from Collin County crowds, Byrd said. This weekend's show will benefit the Kiwanis Club of Allen, a service organization of residents and business leaders who raise money to help area children in need.
Hundreds of small towns and large metro areas welcome Carson & Barnes every year. Spectators glimpse the towering big top from miles away.
That's how they know the thrill of the circus is still standing.
"I can feel their enthusiasm and their excitement when they're in the tent," Byrd said. "I think there will always be a place for the circus."
The Millennium Business Park venue is located at 495 Central Expressway in Allen. Showtimes are 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 23; 1:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
Advance tickets, available at local Kroger stores and online at BigTopShow.com, cost $14 for adults and $6 for children. Circus-day tickets cost $16 for adults and $8 for children.
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