Circus represents many long-standing traditions

Posted 9/22/22

At some point all kids think about growing up in the circus. For a very few, that is indeed the case. For Simone Key, it has been her whole life. 

Key, an aerialist and ringmaster of the …

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Circus represents many long-standing traditions


At some point all kids think about growing up in the circus. For a very few, that is indeed the case. For Simone Key, it has been her whole life. 

Key, an aerialist and ringmaster of the Culpepper and Merriweather Great Combined Circus, began her circus adventure at age five, when her father taught her to ride a unicycle. That single step, a bit of a rite of passage for all the youngsters in the family, became her life’s passion. 

Circus performing has been a part of Key’s family for three generations. Her maternal grandfather was a performer and her father continues to work in the traveling circus.

“I couldn’t imagine a better place to raise a family,” she shared. “Our traveling troupe is a family of 30, on whom we trust for our livelihood…there is no safer place to be than in a circus family.”

Key will be featured at the Culpepper and Merriweather (C&M) circus when they descend on Mineola on Saturday, Oct. 22 for two shows. The big tent – yes, C&M is one of the few traveling circuses which still perform under a big tent – will go up at 9:30 a.m. on the 22nd and will come down after the second show. 

Two performances will be staged, at 2:00 and 4:30. Each is 90 minutes of non-stop action.

The troupe features acrobats, horses, aerialists (trapeze artists), clowns and big cats. There will be something for everyone, Key assured. 

There is also an opportunity to observe the raising of the tent. Promptly at 9:30 on that Saturday morning, the main pole is erected and construction begins. C&M has made the erecting of the big top a unique part of their visit, and folks are encouraged to come out and be a part of it.

“There are only a handful of circuses in the nation that still use a traditional big top; most circuses have gone to staging their acts inside of large venues,” Key explained. “We take great pride in still operating under a tent and we welcome the community to the tent raising.”

It is no small endeavor. The tent measures 80’ x’ 120’ x 30’, and raising it takes two full hours. The three pieces which form the shell are laced together, by hand. It is a nod to tradition and history, and as Key explained, it enables them to bring the circus to small towns across the country.

History and tradition are important parts of the C&M. They “winter-over” in Hugo, Okla., known as Circus City. At one time, Key advised, there were about 20 circus companies headquartered in Hugo. Presently only the C&M and the Carson & Barnes remain. 

The city of Hugo has leveraged the unique history to host a number of circus-related venues. The Endangered Ark Foundation (a habitat for Asian elephants), the Mount Olivet Cemetery – where many performers have been interred – and a tiger preserve are just a few. 

The C&M was founded in 1985 by three men: Curtis Cainan, Jim Hebert and Robert Johnson. It started small, and in those early years the shows were free. At the end of the performance, the cast would simply pass a hat through the crowd. Performance by performance and year by year, the pool of talent grew and the circus fleshed out into the multi-faceted, professional presentation it is today. 

One aspect of the trade which is little noticed is the organization by which they operate. It has a military-like precision. Thirteen large vehicles, a collection of tractor-trailers and recreational vehicles, transport the troupe and all equipage. With over 30 performance dates from March to October, the crew is well-practiced in building the venue and repacking it for the road.

That little appreciated fact stirs the ire of long-time circus performers like Key.

She explained, “When you hear something described as being ‘a real circus’ it has a very negative connotation. However, nothing could be further from the truth. We take great pride in how exacting the profession is. Come out and see for yourselves.”  

Beyond the logistics of building the site several times a week, each stop requires coordination with the local circus sponsor. The Mineola Civic Center is the sponsor of this year’s visit. There is also required filings for permits and liaison with local officials.  

The objective of all that effort is to bring an unforgettable performance that will appeal to everyone in the family, from toddlers to grandparents. The tent capacity is 730 people, so folks are encouraged to buy tickets ( in advance. 

Sell-outs are not unusual.

Key recommends coming out early on the day of the performance to view the tent raising and meet the team. An hour before show time, the small midway will be open for visitors which features pony rides and bouncy houses. 

And then, for an hour and a half, local families will be awed and thrilled by the Great Combined Circus.