Tuesday, January 29, 2008


from Bootleg Magazine Oct 2007

Most think of entertainment as what’s delivered on the television or flickers on the silver screen. In time the appreciation for, and attention to, performance art has slipped away. There is no comparison to the experience of viewing anything performed live – be it the theatre, a musician, a comedian or perhaps the most colorful of all performing arts, a touring circus.
The ones with animals are fine but long ago acts would make their way across the United States performing in small towns, entertaining people far and wide, bringing showmanship and the mystery of their performance to wide eyed ordinary people. The notion of bringing to life, in different places, a world that only exists in the hands and hearts of touring performers is a singular and special aspect to entertainment.
Last June The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus made such a stop in Wilmington, North Carolina at the Juggling Gypsy Cafe during their Summer Variety Show Tour. They set up in the parking lot and the audiences sat on lawn chairs and blankets awaiting the show to begin. As the sun slowly disappeared a clown, Kinko, entered into the arena quietly and sadly, reminiscent of Red Skelton. He patiently unrolled a sign that said: Will Clown For.
As he slowly unrolled it the sign revealed the words food…cash…sex…health insurance...scotch…joint…applause. There was much applause with each word revealed and that opening performing set the mood off, letting the audience they were in for a fun and slightly eccentric evening of entertainment under the early summer sky.
Kinko the Clown continued by making fantastic balloon creatures for people and taking part of someone’s tall boy beer. He moved about slowly, as if his bones and joints were too tight to bend even just a little. He was then joined on stage by Joel Baker, whose silent movie style of acrobatic comedy added levity and quirkiness to the performance. The evening would eventually give way to a variety of performances, juggling, sword swallowing, acrobatics, tight wire walking, fire eating, a reverse organist, rope spinning and a cracking bullwhip in addition to audience participation all hosted by Philomena.
The Bindlestiff Cirkus was founded by Keith Nelson (Kinko the Clown, Mr. Pennygraff) and Stephanie Monseu (Philomena) in 1995 in New York City. The two worked together at a late night diner on the Lower East Side. Stephanie learned that Keith was a fire eater and pushed him to show her in the alleyway outside the diner. Stephanie, who spent years as a jeweler, was no stranger to fire due to welding experience. It was during this time she was taking time off from that line of work due to a wrist injury. Within months they created a fire eating act together and the idea for a circus was not long in the making.
The name Bindlestiff is a long retired word from the Depression era. As slang, it was once used to name the migrant jobless, a group of people who were more well connected than the slang attempted to imply. The name seemed a solid fit for a group of traveling performers dedicated to variety acts, circus sideshow, vaudeville and burlesque. The number of Bindlestiff performers ranges from two to sixteen and as many as 300 have performed with the Cirkus over the last thirteen years, traveling Europe, the entire United States, the Caribbean, and Canada and large festivals such as Burning Man and the All Good Festival.
The Cirkus has been independent since its inception, doing their own booking, promotions, marketing and tour managing. Keith’s resume lists a number of self taught talents, from performing to graphic design to video editing.
“For the most part we do everything that is necessary to put on a circus spectacle,” Keith says. “Until this year, we also did our own driving. And when I say we, for the most part mean Stephanie and myself.”
In their thirteen year history there has only been a few Bindlestiff productions in which there was an outside director. Keith maintains that there is no other group doing the type of show they do today and has also consistently toured over the past decade.
“Mounting a tour is extremely hard work. In the final months before departure you have many sleepless nights. Most of the details are all being handled by two people, Stephanie and myself,” he says. “Beyond the actual booking of the show, travel, housing, food, and general economic issues are always battling us. The rising gas prices are hurting every traveling type of entertainment. Fewer folks have disposable income for entertainment.”
The Bindlestiff’s performed regularly in New York City but during the nineties Mayor Rudy Giuliani began his well known cleaning of the city. The ex mayor was shutting down underground theaters, sex clubs, cabarets and discos, in some cases using laws that remained in the books from the 20's.
“There were cases of venues being shut down because a couple people in the audience were moving to music. Some of the liveliest cabarets were shut down due to not correctly refrigerating beverages that were served. Theater spaces that were Squats were bull dozed. And the economic growth that he helped inspire simply made it so small independent theater spaces could not afford to survive.”
Circus, sideshow, burlesque have been considered illegitimate theater since they formed, due largely to the fact they were not deemed in league with Broadway, Shakespeare, traditional plays or dance. Bindlestiff is a combination of all of these and more.
“No single art form wanted to take credit for the spawning of the variety arts.”
So, they toured outside of their home base, finding they could get away with things in, say, Lincoln, Nebraska that they couldn’t in New York City. They could perform fire eating and some of the old erotic acts. Much of this had to do with the fact that the Cirkus would be out of town long after any word spread about the show.
“So by the time any authority had heard a rumor, we were already down the road.”
In years since Bindlestiff began in New York City, playing to crowds – private or otherwise, burlesque and clown performing has flourished.
“Many of the best performers in America were able to hone their chops with us. The freedom we allow a performer on stage allows them to take risks that few other shows will allow.”
From 2002 to 2004 the Bindlestiffs operated a vaudeville house in Times Square in association with chashama, a non-profit organization that assists artists and performing organizations. It was called Bindlestiff’s Palace of Variety and the Free Museum of Times Square on 42nd Street. There were eight performances a day at Times Square’s last Vaudeville house and dime museum. They loved the work, putting in long hours and doing push-ups between sets to maintain energy and stay awake. Keith recalls the history, the constant parade of humanity as memorable, and the fact that you can still make a dollar off someone wanting to seeing the bizarre, deformed fetuses in jars under the banner of ‘The Horrors of Drug Abuse.” But the influx of money and Disney changed the face of Times Square.
“We are not there any more because Bank of America tore down the building in order to put up a skyscraper.”

Keith Nelson was raised in Advance, North Carolina. At a young age he attended a mud show - a traveling circus that travels every day, setting up in grass or dirt lots. He saw then an interesting way to earn a living performing to the public.
“It simply took me over. Once the saw dust enters your blood stream there is no getting it out.”
While in school he performed in community theater and played tuba in the high school band. But the idea of performing began in 1989 in college where he learned juggling and fire eating. The majority of his skills are self taught. He spent two years studying at New York Goofs Ultimate Clown School and studied with a number of teachers including Avner the Eccentric.
Then there’s sword swallowing which took two years to learn, one of the sideshow skills that requires steadfast dedication.
“No one would teach me,” he says. Once he was able to do it Captain Don Leslie and a few other old timers gave him pointers. “Swallowing a sword is like juggling five balls, you must practice every day with months of failure before you ever get a taste of success.”
He mentions other sideshow performances such as the bed of nails (“If you can build a bed of nails, you can lay on it) and driving a spike into your head for the human blockhead (“it takes less than a month to learn”).
Such is life on a stage whether its ground level, surrounded by a proscenium or under a tent. Keith prefers to perform under a tent than onstage, it is touring with a circus tent that is more difficult than touring with a theater show.
“There is a magic that can be created when you can control the environment,” he says. “The silent clown can usually take you on a more emotional rollercoaster when they own their setting.”
But street theatre is where Keith cut his teeth performing, honing his skills. Working the streets and working burlesque audiences were the two best things to teach how to be a sharp performer on stage.
“There is no better teacher than the streets. The spontaneity of the street forces a performer to be on their toes. If you suck on the street, your audience walks away and you starve that day,” he says.
And audience participation is derived from that very setting and participation has always been part of the Bindlestiff show. Audience members are always eager to get involved and tit was no different last June, as three men saddled up to stage and set about performing for everyone. Their performance was to bend down and pick up a beer and drink it without using their hands.
“We are always up for the spontaneous nature that a live responsive audience allows.”
Keith’s life is a list of experiences that he’s built on. He walked from Texas to New York City in 1991 with a group called A Global Walk for A Livable World. The group did so to raise the environmental consciousness in America.
“A couple days after we completed the walk, the first War in the Gulf started”
He’s performed with jazz musician Ornette Coleman, Lou Reed, performed on the Today Show and Late Night with David Letterman and is a member of the International Jugglers Association, the Circus Historical Society and World Knife Throwers Guild.
And while the word vaudeville may be something many think of as old school, don’t refer to the Bindlestiffs as neo-vaudeville. Keith doesn’t like the word neo. He explains that they are the culmination of American variety entertainment, combining circus, sideshow, vaudeville, burlesque, and the Wild West.
“We have a strong connection with touring circuses and carnivals of the present and the past. Almost every individual that participates with Bindlestiff has invested many hours of research into the history of popular entertainment. We can walk onto almost any circus lot in America and be recognized. Our performers have worked with many different shows including Circus Zoppe, Ringling Bros., Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple Circus, and Broadway. Stephanie and I have both performed with traditional sideshows including Ward Hall and Chris Christ's World of Wonders and also the Brother Grimm Sideshow.”
Few performers involved with Bindlestiff leave the group permanently. Angelo Iodice, or AJ Silver, the rope spinner on tour has been working with Bindlestiff since 2000. Arielle Ebacher, the wire walker/aerialist, has been working with Bindlestiff on and off for two years.
“Our roster of acts covers the entire circus, sideshow, vaudeville, burlesque, cabaret spectrum. We have featured musicians of every type, novelty acts, daredevils, drag queens, performance artists, and even one or two singer/songwriters, especially if they are on a ukulele. We have had pyrotechnic clowns, burlesque queens, drag singers, knife throwers, dog acts, magicians, hand balance acts, trapeze artists, monologists, human blockheads, sword swallowers, cigar box manipulators, bubble artists, balloonatics, and Wild West acts.”
The Bindlestiff’s finished up their tour September 15th, arriving back home in New York at four in the morning. Keith slept for a few hours then awoke to attend Circus Amok's (another NY based alternative circus show whose founder lives in the same building as the Bindlestiff founders) final show in Thompkins Square Park.
“Their main focus in socially conscious performances in the parks of NYC that are free to the public,” he says. “Following the show I went to the 24 hour a day post office and then
went for drinks and dinner with some other clowns.
Bindlestiff is also involved in teaching people about performing arts for several year and involved in a summer camp program for kids. For the past four years they have produced Bindlestiff's Cavalcade of Youth, a mentoring type program in which young entertainers are paired up with professional circus coaches and culminates in a public showcase of young acts ranging from amateur to professional aged twenty years or younger.
“This summer we produced our first summer camp program. It was a two week intensive study of circus arts for ages 8 to 14. Thirty kids came to Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island every day for two weeks to learn to juggle, do acrobatics, walk a tight wire, stilt walk, and work together. At the end of the session the campers presented a show.”
With touring and teaching younger people the art of performing the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is doing much to keep the tradition alive for many years to come.

1 comment:

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Thanks for this piece. You blog popped up in my Google alerts for sword swallowing.

I've never heard of the Brindlestiff Family Circus and am now quite intrigued. I'll have to google them and see if they have a published itinerary and if it includes stops in SoCali.