Schuster will become a ‘big top’

Significant Object, the puppet creators of “Warhorse,” have created two elephant puppets for “Circus 1903.” SUBMITTED PHOTO
Significant Object, the puppet creators of “Warhorse,” have created two elephant puppets for “Circus 1903.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

‘Circus 1903’ will feature acts from around the world

When they dreamed up the idea of re-creating the Golden Age of Circus on stage, the producers of “Circus 1903” had no idea their touring production would turn out to be so timely.

Just weeks after their new show opened at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, it was announced that the most famous circus of all — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey — would be closing its tent flaps in May. The official announcement, by chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld, said ticket sales had been declining and had dropped even more dramatically after the elephants were taken off the road.

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Meanwhile, Simon Painter and his creative team, who’d already found great success with their turn-of-the-century magic show, “The Illusionists,” were just kicking off their nostalgic tribute to the heyday of circus. That production will be on stage at Dayton’s Schuster Center June 13-18.

The acts on view will range from teeter-board acrobatics and juggling to cycling and high wire. Many of the performers on stage come from multi-generational circus families in France, Ukraine, Canada, Spain, Mexico, Russia. The technical crew numbers 50.

To address the live animal dilemma, producers came up with an interesting substitution. The animals, so integral to circuses of the past, will be represented by puppets created by the folks of Significant Object, who brought us the amazing life-like horses in “Warhorse.”

“The history of circus is so fascinating. It’s such a beautiful art and a hundred years ago it was the only style of entertainment, ” says director Neil Dorward. “We wanted to tell a different side of the story — about the hard work that was required of these performers and about their human capabilities.”

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It’s hard work for the crew as well. Dorward says creating a big top inside a proscenium stage that varies with every city is a challenge. “The set design is quite complicated,” he says. “We consulted circus people about the rigging, the high wire acts. We toured the world for the best acts out there.”

Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade is portrayed by magician David Williamson. Contributed
Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade is portrayed by magician David Williamson. Contributed


Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade will introduce each of the circus acts and interact with kids in the audience. Folks in our area will recognize him as comic magician David Williamson, who lives with his family in Yellow Springs. He began performing magic at age 10 and never stopped.

“I grew up in Xenia and met my wife when we were in high school,” Williamson says. “My grandfather was an executive at NCR and my mom worked at Wright State University’s television center. Our family farm is still in Cedarville.”

Williamson majored in art at Wright State but never stopped performing magic. "Every kid gets the bug but very few don't shake the bug," he says.

A couple who saw him doing magic at the Yum Yum Tree in Xenia introduced him to Dayton Magic Club Ring 5, part of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Before lon,g his mother was putting him on Greyhound buses so that he could perform at festivals.

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One the years, Williamson has traveled the world and performed tricks on prime-time network specials — ABC’s “Champions of Magic,” CBS’ “Magicians’ Favorite Magicians,” NBC’s “Houdini: Unlocking His Mysteries” and “World’s Greatest Magic III.” He’s toured with the “The Illusionists” and his book, “Williamson’s Wonders,” has been translated into three languages.

Williamson, 56, has fond memories of attending the Shrine Circus in Dayton and the Ringling circus at Hara Arena.

"I remember the pageantry and the spectacle and the excitement," he says. "When our producer painted a picture for me and said we'd be telling the story of a circus coming to town in 1903, I knew I had to be part of it." He chose the name Willy Whipsnade from an old movie in which W.C. Fields played a circus boss.

“Circus 1903” recreates an old-time circus. Contributed
“Circus 1903” recreates an old-time circus. Contributed

When the circus came to town 100 years ago, Williamson explains, it was the biggest day of the year — like the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Oscars all rolled into one. “The schools and factories would close in small-town America and everyone would come out to the train yard to watch the spectacle unfold. Our show reminds people why they loved circus.”

Producers chose the year 1903 because it was a big year in many ways. The Wright brothers flew the first airplane, Ford sold its first Model A and Ringing circuses were at the height of their popularity. Extensive research was done, he says, to ensure that costumes and sets would be historically correct. Musicians from the City of Prague’s Philharmonic Orchestra wrote music for each of the circus acts.

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“Our high-wire aerialist, Maria, comes from a sixth generation circus family in Guadalajara and says this show is a love letter to her grandparents and to the tradition of circus,” Williamson says.


Stage manager Terrence Williams describes his job as “a bit like an air traffic controller.” Williams, who has worked in Las Vegas with David Copperfield and Cirque du Soleil, is responsible for calling 600 light cues and 250 sound cues as well as supervising rigging cues and flying effects.

Williams is also responsible for checking safety throughout the show. "With 24 circus performers there are elements of risk," he says. "Our audiences gasp at the aerial loop act and the juggler always brings the crowd to their feet. Another favorite is the high-wire act."

Williams also oversees the whimsical elephant puppets.

“They don’t poop all over the arena like the real circus elephants did but they do have other issues,” he says. “Queenie, for example, is a large African elephant puppet that requires six puppeteers, two of them on stilts. They all have to walk in time as a team. The challenge is that they’re made of delicate material.”

Elephant puppets star in “Circus 1903.” Contributed
Elephant puppets star in “Circus 1903.” Contributed


One of those working Peanut the Baby Elephant is Luke Chadwick-Jones of the United Kingdom. His background is an eclectic mix of gymnast, trampoline, circus, puppetry, acting and mime.

“The way our industry has gone you really need to be multi-talented,” he says. “You have to know as much as you can.”

As part of their research, he and his colleagues were introduced to real elephants. "We learned how different their personalities are," Chadwick-Jones says. "The ones I met were flirtatious, super clever, majestic and they had a sense of humor."

He calls “Circus 1903” breathtaking. “There’s nothing out there like this,” he concludes. “I watch the show from the sidelines and I’m still on the edge of my seat. These guys are the best in the world.”


WHAT: "Circus 1903," a romantic tribute to the Golden Age of Circus

WHEN: June 13-18

WHERE: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton

RECOMMENDED: For ages 6 and up. The show runs two hours plus intermission.

TICKETS: Prices range from $30-$97. Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or online at Group rates are available at (937) 461-8295.

Presented by The Victoria Theatre Association as part of the Premier Health Broadway Series.

Step right up! “Circus 1903” is coming to town! SUBMITTED PHOTO
Step right up! “Circus 1903” is coming to town! SUBMITTED PHOTO