Join the "Circus" on TV


This is the week when two terrific mini-series begin peaking inside colorful show-business worlds. "Moguls & Movie Stars" is from 8-9 p.m. for seven Mondays on Turner Classic Movies; "Circus" is from 9-11 p.m. for three Wednesdays on most PBS stations.

I found the "Circus" people especially interesting to talk to. Here's the story I sent to papers; if you're reading this after the first episode aired, check www.pbs.org:

 

By MIKE HUGHES

As some people tell it, the circus is a
birthright. Performers trace their heritage for generations, almost
like kings and Kennedys and mafiosi.

Is that really true? Yes and no, we
learn from people in a new PBS documentary series.

“Circus” spends a season with the
Big Apple Circus. Viewers soon meet legacy performers, including:

– Christian Stoinev. “I'm a
fifth-generation performer,” he said. His mom's family runs the
biggest circus in Mexico; now he's putting his own career on hold
while he studies at Illinois State.

– Alida Wallenda-Cortes. She's
eighth-generation, in perhaps the most famous circus family.

Back in 1962, before she was born, the
Flying Wallendas fell during a high-wire pyramid in Detroit. Two
people died, one was paralyzed, four survived, including her
great-grandfather. “I remember him when he was 4 years
old,” she said. “He was holding me in one hand and a martini in
the others.”

When the pyramid was finally re-created
in 1998, she was at its front. Now she's a trapez artist in her
husband's aerial act; jobs change, but the circus is forever.

“My great-grandmother is in her '80s
and she's still involved booking acts and helping the circus people
out,” Wallenda-Cortes said. “It's something that gets into your
heart and that you have to live.”

Still, we also meet performers who
reached Big Apple with no circus background.

Marty LaSalle started gymnastics at 8;
his twin Jake taught himself to juggle at 10. They soared, then went
in opposite directions.

Now Jake, 26, works
behind-the-scenes for Big Apple, in customer relations. “This is an
incredibly colorful world,” he said. “There's inspiration,
energy, excitement.”

Marty, however, is in his
second year of medical school; the series captures his final year
with a circus. “I miss it,” he said. “I miss it all the time.”

Then there's Glen Heroy,
whose childhood included community theater, but no circus and few
breaks. “My mother was a drinker, my sister was alcoholic …. From
14 to 17, I was living alone a lot.”

Classmates called him Happy,
which he only seemed to be. “My fallback position is nice,” he
said.

In the years after that, he
would experience divorce, homelessness and a nervous breakdown. He
would also become a clown, a job he fits.

“(It) doesn't hurt that
you look funny,” said Heroy, who – at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds –
projects warmth.

Heroy spent eight years in
the Big Apple's clown-care unit, at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
in New York. He also spent 12 years as a Santa Claus at Macy's.

Still, he had never been in
the circus. Then he crashed the Big Apple's Christmas party, in his
Santa suit. “I just sort of kicked open the door and took over the
place.”

Paul Binder, the Big Apple
co-founder, noticed. “I said, 'This guy has what it takes to do it
in the ring.'”

As “Circus” begins,
Heroy is clinging to his job. “I didn't know if I was going to make
the cut,” he said.

It's not easy. In “Circus,”
some of the key people triumph and some are dropped from the show.
Two romances bloom, one of them soon fading. Some people are
seriously injured, one is arrested after talking about how to bomb a
circus.

It's colorful, compelling,
eccentric. It's “Circus” life.

– “Circus,” PBS (check
local listings)

– 9-11 p.m. for three
Wednesdays, starting Nov. 3