Teri Silver is a journalist and longtime lover of the circus. She now lives this dream through words and her circus friends.
Even in today's world of digital entertainment, there is nothing like seeing a live performance to remind us that human beings are amazing.
And one place to see these amazing people showcase their amazing talents is at the circus.
Circuses are not only popular sources of entertainment, many of them help to raise money for charitable Shrine organizations.
Shrine Circus History
In 1906. the first one-ring circus took place at the Moslem Shrine Center in Detroit, Michigan. The Shrine circus grew to three rings by 1925.
Throughout the 20th century, many famous circus stars performed for the Shrine, including Emmett Kelly (clown), Clyde Beatty (lion trainer), The Flying Wallendas (aerialists), and equestrians from the Royal Hanneford family.
Today, there are a number of privately-owned circuses on the Shrine circuit -- some that have been kicking sawdust for decades.
Look closely at the clowns performing in the show where you live -- underneath all that greasepaint, you just might know one personally! Shrine circus clowns are members of the local organization who, um, love to clown around.
Circus traditions do live on. They are also changing to keep up with the 21st century.
I spoke with Circus United producer Fletcher Runyan about the past, present, and future of circus, and what it's like to put a show together.
In the Beginning ...
Fletcher Runyan is co-owner and producer of Circus United. Unlike many families steeped in circus tradition, Runyan began at age six in an after-school program based in San Diego.
“My mother enrolled me and my four siblings to keep us busy and out of trouble."
A couple of years later, Runyan met Pietro Canestrelli, whose family had performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1940s. Canestrelli taught the 13-year-old boy how to walk the wire.
“I’m the only one of the Runyan Brothers who stuck with circus life," he says.
At 17, Fletcher Runyan worked for Billy Martin’s Cole All-Star Circus in upstate New York. After a short stint in Mexico with Circo DePortugal, it was back to the Billy Martin show for the next five years. During that time and beyond, Runyan performed with various circuses in the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world.
Later on, Fletcher Runyan landed what he calls a dream job.
“The highlight of my career was doing NBA half-time shows,” he said smiling. “I did the wire act for four or five seasons."
While working for the National Basketball Association, Fletcher Runyan and Shane Johnson developed a show that would become Circus United. In 2013, they booked their first performance at the Bedouin Shrine Temple in Oklahoma.
Fletcher Runyan is the JOAT -- Jack Of All Trades -- of Circus United and its parent company; Family Entertainment Industry (F.E.I). He is in charge of marketing, clientele, bookings, venues, and all the odds and ends. When the circus is traveling, Runyan directs the crew and equipment layout.
“My partner (Shane Johnson) runs the concessions," he says. "We are Chief Operations Officers; we make all major decisions together.”
Along with Circus United, Runyan and Johnson have added more shows to F.E.I, including motor sports, wrestling, ice skating, rodeos, music, and comedy acts.
“We’ve become a one-stop shop for fundraising entertainment,” Runyan quipped.
When the Circus Comes to Town
Although many circuses still use tents, Circus United performs in arenas. On show days, mornings are teeming with activity.
"Performers travel separately, so I'm always hoping there are no snags on the way to the venues. But once everything is in place, it’s a smooth ride.
"Everyone does things differently,” notes Runyan. “We are the first ever Shrine Circus of Thrills™ and have our sponsor’s name in the marketing."
Life on the Road
Circus United has the logistics of moving equipment down to a science. But in bad weather, it can be hard on traveling performers.
“We’ve gone through ice storms, heavy snow and rain, strong winds, sleet, blizzards ... just about everything,” Fletcher Runyan told me.
"The drive can be very stressful if you have a short window of time. Vehicle breakdowns are bound to happen but you still have to be at the venue for set-up by a certain time because, as the saying goes, the show must go on."
Breakdowns and other challenges are part of what makes circus people amazing, notes the the Circus United producer.
“I’m not saying that circus people are any tougher than anyone else, but we do have a unique way of living," says Runyan. "Circus folks, like everyone else, must earn money to eat and pay bills. That can be tough because the industry is up and down, and income is always inconsistent.
“But the business has taught me that you have to be tough. Like everyone, money gets tight. Health problems crop up. Equipment breaks down. You learn to handle the rough days, and we all have them. At the end of the day, the spirit and contagious addiction of the circus rewards us in a way that cannot be explained with words."
The Show Must Go On … But Does it?
Inclement weather takes its toll on outdoor performances, especially when the ground is flooded.
“Hard rains and floods at an outdoor event before showtime must be cleaned up quickly so that people aren’t sloshing through mud and water,” Runyan confirmed. "Safety is our main concern."
Wire walkers, globe motorcyclists, and trapeze artists know the elements of danger in their acts. But it is Fletcher Runyan's responsibility to determine if the venue is safe.
"If bad weather comes before or during an outdoor event, we’ll cancel the performance. If it's supposed to but hasn’t happened yet, each act will decide for themselves if they’re comfortable to perform. Sure, 'the show must go on,’ but never at the cost of safety.”
Building an Enterprise
Fletcher Runyan and Shane Johnson knew each other for many years before creating Circus United. The two became business partners in 2011.
"I wanted to provide Shriners with more fundraising options, so that’s where Family Entertainment Industry and Monster Motor Madness comes in," Runyan told me.
Shane Johnson's circus background had him working with tigers.
"Shane knows circus, so we select acts together. Shane completes the vetting and booking process of hiring the acts.
"He's in charge of concessions but he gives his input on the entire production -- that's very helpful and I value his viewpoint. And, to be fair ... I come around to visit the concessions, especially when it comes to ‘quality checking’ hot dogs and cotton candy,” Runyan added with a smile.
In 2012, the newly-formed entertainment company had built a good reputation. But in a competitive and somewhat declining market, circus dates were hard to come by.
“It took about two years to get our first booking," recollects Fletcher Runyan. "But once we did, everything took off from there."
For the Shriners, Runyan focuses on improving fundraising opportunities.
“The business end is very important,” he says. “We are always publicizing, talking to people, booking shows, drawing the talent, and standing firm about keeping our promises.”
The Business of Circus
Once upon a time, live circus entertainment was a big deal for small towns and rural communities.
"Now, society is all about sensationalism, technology, lighting, and gadgetry," says Runyan. "It's today’s entertainment."
But circus life is tough. Behind every spangled costume is a story of hard work, financial expense, and a certain amount of personal sacrifice.
“Besides the travel, people seem to think circus producers and performers are getting rich, but that’s not the case. We have to eat, pay for healthcare, clothes and other necessities, too. Mostly we’re hoping to break even or better.”
Like other circuses, Circus United feels the heat when it comes to having performing animals in the show.
“We love having animals -- what is a circus without them? Animals are part of true circus tradition," maintains Fletcher Runyan.
"But a circus without animals is more common today. It’s hard for traveling shows to deal with local ordinances and opposition groups. The circus industry has been slandered by so-called ‘animal rights’ people who don’t respect our business.
“It cost a lot of money to feed, house, clean up after, and provide excellent veterinary care to our animals. They are family. To ensure their welfare, circus animals are constantly being inspected by government agencies."
And with that, the doors will remain open for animals to perform with Circus United ... if possible.
“We absolutely prefer to have animals in our show but it’s an uphill climb," says Runyan. "We’re torn between the fight of survival and keeping up with forced animal restrictions in various states.
"But if the opportunity is there, we'll consider it."
For Circus United, finding the perfect acts for different shows is an ongoing process.
“Some of them I met when I was a circus performer,” recalls Runyan, "and others I've seen in various shows. But mostly, folks come to us looking for work.”
Circus performers who are not under long-term contracts with their current employers are often looking ahead to the next season.
Circus United's season is about eight weeks long, but there is room to grow.
“Our trademarked concept is Shrine Circus of Thrills™,” notes Runyan. “We rarely have acts contracted for all the dates booked, because performances are uniquely designed for each Shrine organization.”
Circus United isn’t just a bunch of acts pasted together to become one show. It’s about being in a circus family, together.
“We’re professional and do our jobs, but it’s fun," says Fletcher Runyan. “We like to hang out together, have barbecues, pot luck dinners, and such. Our company is family-friendly; that’s what I love most about it."
With an impish grin, Runyan shared this story with me about his partner, Shane Johnson.
“Shane loves his satellite dish -- he sets it up everywhere we go. When the circus arrives at a campsite near the performance area, Shane is already there, tuning in his satellite. So, if you hear a beeping sound in the middle of the night, you know Shane is trying to tune in his satellite. Shane loves his satellite and food -- don’t mess with any of it,” Runyan said smiling.
Coping with COVID-19
The Coronavirus pandemic -- COVID-19 -- has severely impacted the entertainment industry, as producers of live shows try to keep their businesses afloat. Still, says Fletcher Runyan, the future is out there.
“Having to slow down because of the pandemic has actually been good for me. I am well and my family is well. Life is what you make of it. COVID-19 is serious and we take it that way, but you have to plan and move forward. That’s what I’m doing.
“We’re continuing to structure our business. From where we started to where we are now, Circus United and Family Entertainment Industry are successful, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
As we know, circus life isn’t all glitz and glamour -- it takes hard work and dedication to put a show on the road. I asked Fletcher Runyan what truly inspires him to this calling.
“I love the audience and how people react with excitement, so we’re constantly focusing on ways to push the envelope. What inspires me is the joy our shows bring to people when they are in awe, amazed, or excited.”
Later is later, but for now, the future is circus.
"Right now there is nothing else I want than to be in the circus entertainment industry. It has ups and downs, but I can travel and see the country."
Circus United and Family Entertainment Industry have a bright future, Runyan confirmed, but he is also thinking about ways to stay busy when the time comes to retire from the road.
“I’d like to own a bar, which is OK because I quit drinking a few years ago. It’s something to think about whenever I start that path to retirement.”
If you ask me, a bar decorated with circus props and memorabilia sounds like a great place to hang out and swap a few tall tales.
"Hey, not a bad idea," said Fletcher with a sly wink.
© 2021 Teri Silver