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Big Top Dreams: Building the Big Apple


The first Big Apple Circus big top

The first Big Apple Circus big top goes up in Battery Park City in New York City in 1977. Photo copyright Peter Angelo Simon 1977/2010

This story begins where all good circus stories must: with a rubber chicken named Leonard.

When you're twenty-something and working the streets of Paris for lunch money in exchange for a few laughs, a floppy rubber chicken passed in a juggling routine between two clowns might mean the difference between a piece of stale bread for your meal and a fresh croissant and a bottle of wine. Enter Leonard.

"The life expectancy of an acrobatic rubber chicken is very short," says Big Apple Circus Co-founder Michael Christensen, who was one of those fresh-faced street performers juggling for a meal nearly 40 years ago. "When you're taking the Leap of Death upwards of 20 times a day, even if you have great muscle tone, your life expectancy is very short."

Today, Christensen still juggles occasionally, but now he performs far away from the European street corners of his youth. These days, when he throws a boneless fowl up into the air and catches it in a frying pan, it is under the big top he founded with business and performance partner Paul Binder — the Big Apple Circus.

The business of founding a circus is no easy task, even if you have a firm idea about what it should look like and where it should live. When Binder and Christensen left Paris in the early 1970s, they had lots of ideas for a traditional, not-for-profit, one-ring European circus and school that would be high on artistic expression and short on ballyhoo. But they didn't have a lot of funding.

The first corporation to back the Big Apple Circus was Con Edison, with a pledge of $25,000 to provide tickets for children from poor neighborhoods who might not otherwise be able to see the show. This pledge was the genesis for the Big Apple's Circus For All! program and a big part of its important community outreach mission. Several angel investors kicked in money, and Binder and Christensen began performing for private parties to raise money for their dream. The circus was beginning to take shape, as was the corresponding school.

Troubles With a Tent

In the heat of summer 1977, the Big Apple Circus tried to raise its green big top in the only area it could get a city permit: the gravel-covered landfill of Battery Park City. Despite hours of work and sweat in the dusty field, the tent would not go up correctly. Finally, Binder and Christensen discovered that the tent was not the right size, and plans to open the circus for business were nearly scrapped. Luckily, a minor celebrity, friend and expert tent rigger — Philippe Petit — came to the rescue and found a way to raise the ill-fitting tent. Three years earlier, Petit had gained international notoriety by stringing a cable between the World Trade Center Twin Towers and dancing between them, more than a quarter of a mile above Manhattan. Petit called his daring stunt "le coup," but during the summer of 1977, as the Big Apple's big top lay on the gravel, Petit's most important feat was raising the big top for the patrons who would come to see the fledgling circus.

On July 18, the Big Apple Circus welcomed crowds to its humble big top and more than 45,000 people filled the bleachers during its 10-week run. The Daily News and The Village Voice both raved that the intimacy of the one-ring format made the experience more tactile and fulfilling.

In 1979, however, funding for the circus flagged, and Binder and Christensen didn't have the cash to raise the tent. The two plucky performers rallied and hired an executive director, Judith Friedlander, to help them reach more potential funders and resurrect the Big Apple Circus. Their strategy paid off, and, in 1981, they raised their new European tent in Lincoln Center during the holidays to enthusiastic crowds and rousing media reviews.

"When you love what you do, you want to share it. People ask me all the time if we ever thought about packing it in. But you know what? We never once considered chucking it in," says Christensen.

Red Nose Transplants

But budget woes and tent troubles weren't the only hardships that this circus family would endure. In 1985, Christensen's brother Kenneth passed away from pancreatic cancer. "He was heart-stricken by it," recalls Binder of his partner's loss.

Soon after his sibling's death, Christensen was approached to perform at Heart Day at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, which he gladly did in memory of his brother.

"We set about to parody the hospital establishment, so instead of doing heart transplants we did red nose transplants. It was great. It was twenty minutes of the most fulfilling clowning I'd ever done," says Christensen. "(My brother's) passing was a tremendous gift to me. It opened me up and allowed me to be more receptive."

Christensen immediately saw the advantage of bringing humor into hospital rooms and created the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. Today, more than 65 professional clowns are integrated into 16 hospitals around the nation, where they are trained in hygienic protocol and spend one to five days a week in hospitals bringing their special prescription of joy to more than 200,000 patients and their families.

"(The clowns) are part of the everyday medical team, as opposed to being a special treat," says Christensen.

A Dream Between Two Jugglers

Indeed, as the Big Apple Circus has grown in scope and become more integrated into the fabric of New York City, so has its philanthropic reach. Nearly 20 percent of the Big Apple Circus budget is earmarked for community outreach efforts, which means it must raise approximately four million dollars annually in charitable contributions to fund programs such as Clown Care, Circus After School, Circus For All, and Circus of the Senses, a program that yearly welcomes children with hearing and vision impairments to free special presentations of the Big Apple Circus.

In the 33 years since it first raised its green, ill-fitting big top, the Big Apple Circus has morphed from a dream between two young jugglers on the streets of Paris to a living, breathing home for artists of all stripes and spots. Today, both Binder and Christensen are stepping away from the day-to-day operation of the circus, but still they are in awe of this little dream that came true.

"Today we have the same attitude we had in the Nouveau Cirque de Paris," says Christensen. "Do you believe what our organization has become? This joy of throwing a rubber chicken back and forth has led to this Big Apple Circus."

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