When I was a wee lad, I had a book called "Toby Tyler, Circus Boy." As intrigued as I was by Toby's adventures in the circus, I never wanted to be him. He had to run away from home to join the circus, but I could have all the joys of home, and some of Toby's excitement, since every summer the circus came to My Home Town.
Back in those simpler times, when a circus or carnival came to town, it was a gala affair for all. The circuses had live entertainment and weird sideshows. The carnivals had sideshows but no entertainment (unless you consider 600-pound women and three-headed boys entertainment); however, they had all sorts of rides and games of chance, which I always thought should be called "games of certainty."
Both circuses and carnivals had all the forbidden foods and drinks that tasted great and turned your large intestine into a personal Love Canal.
I still remember highlights from those times. One was a carnival when I was 7 that was held at the Fish and Game Club grounds. Due to a serious cash-flow problem, I spent all my money (all 25 cents) on a hot dog and Coke, but I spent almost all my time watchng a guy work the Cover the Spot Game.
If you don't know this hustle, it consists of a red spot, maybe 6 inches in diameter, painted on a wooden counter. Then there are five metal discs, and the challenge is to lay the discs down so they completely cover the spot. Once on the spot, the disc can't be moved. The carny demonstrates it over and over, and of course, it looks perfectly straightforward. The only problem is after you pay your money, you find you can't do it for diddly.
Interestingly, it's not a con - it's only a matter of knowing exactly how to lay those discs down, something the carny has learned and you'll never have the time and money to learn.
That same summer, a huge circus set up on the Petrova field and was there for an entire magical week. Because they charged no admission to the grounds, I wandered around them every day, taking in the noise, lights and excitement. Then one night my father took my brother and me to see the big top show.
I remember one act vividly - a knife thrower. The highlight of his act was strapping his lovely and shapely assistant, arms and legs spread, to a big wooden circle that spun on an axle. Then he spun the board to a dizzying speed, stepped back and proceeded to fire his knives till they'd completely outlined the woman.
I was gobsmacked! And I full well should've been, as I've since found out almost no knife throwers have the skill to work with moving targets - especially live ones. When it came to the fine art of knife throwing, you could say he was on the cutting edge.
A final circus, I recall, was held on the Mount Pisgah field before there were any houses there, sometime around 1958 or so. What I remember most about it was that I discovered I couldn't eat candy apples and then ride the Whip. Or to be more exact, I couldn't eat candy apples and ride the Whip without barfing my brains out.
But in spite of my lifelong love of circuses, it wasn't till last Saturday that I was actually in one - the SLYC Circus at Lake Colby beach.
Bozos in the Blue Moon
It all started several months ago. I was in my office in the Blue Moon when my friend Scott Eichholz told me he was helping put together a fundraiser for our youth center (hence the Y.C. in SLYC) and asked if I'd lend my prestidigitorial proclivities to the event.
"I dunno," I said. "I haven't gigged in a long time. I'm rusty and not all that confident."
"You wouldn't have to do a lot," he said, "just walkaround magic and whatever you're comfortable with."
I was hesitant, but Scott's such a great guy and the youth center's such a good cause, I agreed.
While walkaround magic sounds easy, it's not. You have to get people's attention while competing against all the other distractions; you have to work surrounded, and there's no table to rest items on. In short, it's a specific situation that calls for a level of confidence I rarely have. And when Saturday arrived, I didn't have that confidence at all. So rather than mortify myself and disappoint everyone else, I decided to bow out.
When I went to Colby and told Scott, he was ever-gracious about it - even though I felt like a louse.
But as we stood there talking, I took in the scene and was impressed by it. There were all sorts of booths and games, and as calliope music filled the air, a good-sized and good-natured crowd milled merrily about. What most impressed me was everything had been organized by Elizabeth Carless, the director of the Saranac Lake Youth Center, and had been carried out by a huge number of volunteers.
Scott and his partners in foolery, Matt, Paul and Maria DeAngelo, were in their full, eye-freaking clown attire - Matt and Maria doing facepainting and Scott being a shticker of all trades.
In the middle of the area was a small circus tent.
"What's in the tent?" I asked.
"Oh, that's where the talent show's gonna be held," said Scott.
"Yeah, it's real informal," he said. "Matt and I'll do a couple of bits, and other folks have signed up for other acts."
I looked at everyone enjoying themselves, and then it hit me: Not only could I do a bit in the talent show, but I darn well should.
Dozens of people had invested hundreds of hours to put together this event for our community to help our young people who'd most appreciate it. Everyone there was giving of themselves - everyone but me. And why not? Pure ego, that's why. It nailed me like a direct hit between the running lights.
"When's the show?" I asked.
"It starts at 3," Scott said.
I looked at my watch. It was 12:30.
That gave me two-and-a-half hours till showtime, but could I rise to the occasion? Or more correctly, would I?
I thought it over.
There was no way I could be right on ... but I could be "enough on" so I contribute my fair share and maybe in the process give some people a bit of fun.
I had to make a decision, but it wasn't a tough one ... if I wanted to live with myself.
I diddy-bopped home, rehearsed frenetically for an hour-and-a-half and then diddy-bopped back to Colby in time to sign up for the show.
The show's feature was Scott and Matt's act (featuring sophisticated bits like "Why does the ocean roar?" "Well, you'd roar, too, if you had lobsters in your bed!") But everyone had a fun shtick. Michael played keyboards; Alex Rodriguez (the other A-Rod) danced; there was a juggler and a mother-daughter tap-dance duo.The local dog obedience club put on a dog and pony show (minus the pony) and in the middle of it all, I did some sleight-of-hand and slight-of-mind.
The audience either enjoyed themselves a lot or did a great job of faking it (one being as good as the other to me), and it provided a delightful end to a delightful day.
So has my last-minute foray under the small top given me the courage and confidence to run away and join the circus - to become a contemporary, geriatric version of Toby Tyler?
Of course not.
Why would I run away and join the circus when I know next year the SLYC Circus will come here and join me?