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RBC I This weekend, Rio Blanco County residents watched aerialists spin overhead, a draft horse thundering alongside a miniature pony and a lion named Francis showing some serious attitude.
What viewers may not have realized was that they were watching an art form that, while increasingly rare in the United States, is still very much alive.
Several hundred residents turned out Friday in Rangely and Saturday in Meeker to see the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus, a company of 30 people and nearly two dozen animals that travels the country from March to October, putting on two shows in a new town each day for eight months.
Nathan Holguin and Michelle Musser, Culpepper and Merriweather’s clown duet Punchy and Judy, have worked together for seven years. The pair has worked for a Chicago circus, a number of shows in San Francisco and performed in Madison Square Garden to the tune of 250,000 viewers with “The Greatest Show on Earth, the Ringling Bros. And Barnum and Bailey Circus.
The duo signed on with Culpepper and Merriweather, their third professional circus, because they wanted to be part of an “old school” circus and because, these days, that doesn’t happen in the urban sprawl. It happens in small town USA.
“What you have to realize is that these people we’re touring with, they’re old circus,” Holguin said. “Michelle and I, we’re new circus. We had to go to school for this. We had to work our way into this business and really prove ourselves to get as far as we have gotten.
“The people we’ve been touring with this show, like the lady who does the hair hang, she’s the seventh generation in her family to do that act. This is what they know. They’ve done this their whole lives, so they’re used to it. This is normal.”
Normal, says Holguin, is a crew of nine men that sets up a 120-by-80-foot, 3,600-pound big top each morning, including 32 side poles, 16 quarter poles, two center poles and 100 stakes, and tears it down every night for 32 weeks straight.
Normal is adding between 50 and 370 miles of travel each day to raising the tent, caring for animals, honing and building individual acts and prepping the concession wagon, and still being 100 percent ready for the inevitable throng of people. It’s taking precious moments of free time for yourself to do yoga, drink coffee or nap.
It is as authentic as circus gets. And it’s getting harder and harder to find in the United States.
“At one time, there used to be 30 of these tent shows in the U.S.,” Musser said. “Now there are six. We’re kind of a dying breed in America. In Europe, circuses are a big deal. Royalty go to circuses. People dress up in suits and ties.”
While circus continues to thrive elsewhere, like Mexico and South America, Musser said the decline of traveling circuses in the U.S. correlates with waning support for live performance and art, not to mention the next new, over-the-top experience offered by modern technology.
But judging from the crowd, shows like Culpepper and Merriweather can still capture an audience’s imagination.
“By and large, I’ve noticed the audiences are very keyed into what we’re doing because it is a rare thing in this day and age,” Holguin said. “It’s not every day you’re going to see a guy climb into a cage with a 500-pound lion. And it’s even rarer to find a lion with a sense of humor like Francis.”
He said that although it has taken time to adjust to the travel schedule and living out of a camp trailer, it’s been worth it.
“For Michelle and me, as circus artists, it’s a real thrill and an honor to be working with a show at this scale,” Holguin said. “We specifically chose a contract at this level of the market because we wanted this experience.
“The daily jumps, the small towns, the tent — no matter where you sit in the tent, you’re never more than 40 feet from the center of the ring. That’s phenomenal, considering we played at Madison Square Garden, where if you’re at the top of the stands and you look down at the floor, we’re just specks of color.”
Rio Blanco County audiences last weekend seemed to appreciate what Holguin called the “diehard traditionalist” ways of Culpepper and Merriweather, according to owner and general manager Trey Key, who keeps the roots of old-school circus alive with a trapeze artist and aerialist, a family of torch juggling unicyclists and several animal shows, among other acts.
“The circus had this really original, ‘let’s get back to a simpler time’ feel to it,” said Rangely resident Jennifer Aplanalp, who attended the show with her husband, Shane, and daughters Brooke, 7, Peyton, 5, and Shelby, 2. “It felt like the setting of a 1930s Depression-era circus. Obviously they pulled out all the stops to make it professional, but it was just so real.”
Meeker Chamber of Commerce Director Katelin Cook, who helped bring the show to town, said her experience with Culpepper and Merriweather was positive from initial talks in April until the performances last weekend.
“Everyone I worked with from the show was great, and people seemed to think it was very family-friendly,” Cook said. “It was just a good experience overall.”
As the Punchy and Judy duet looks ahead to the more than 200 shows left in the season, Musser sums up the life of a small-tent circus performer in just a couple of sentences.
“You have to have a certain kind of heart and soul to do this line of work,” she said. “It has to be in your blood.”