Circus Rolls On

By John Rygiel

South Eastern Advertiser
Wednesday 26/11/2003
General News, Page 72

The circus, complete with performing animals, lion tamers and the like, is politically incorrect nowadays and has all but died out in its traditional form.

But in days gone past, the circus was a source of rare entertainment, excitement and fascination for "ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages", as the time honoured ringmaster's spiel goes.

The history of circus is lost in antiquity. In Australia, it goes back to the time of european settlement and family dynasties have been built on the travelling shows that toured everywhere they could get paying audiences.

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre Museum is now featuring Circus - Under the Big Top, a celebration of the art and life of circus performers through costumes, photographs, posters and artifacts from QPAC's own collection and that of the Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum.

There also are special pieces from private collections, including those of John MacDonnell, a political journalist who gave away the media circus to become the ringmaster for the Sydney-based Stardust Circus nearly 30 years ago.

"I am very proud of Australia's circuses and the family dynasties that rule them," MacDonnell said.

"They've been running for more than 200 years and 11 of the 15 families have been in the business for over a century."

"The circus is a very honourable tradition."

Admission is free to Circus - Under the Big Top at the Tony Gould Gallery, QPAC, until February 22, 2004. It is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm.

Politics of the Ring

John MacDonnell quit Canberra's press gallery and ran away to join the circus.

Rodney Chester reports.

John MacDonnell worked with clowns, jugglers and tightrope walkers - and then quit his job as a political journalist to join the circus.

It might seen like a strange career move for a man who was the Australian Associated Press Canberra bureau chief in the 60's, but after half a lifetime spent touring the country in a caravan, the veteran ringmaster has no regrets.

"I'd always had friends in show business, because Australia wasn't such a big place," MacDonnell says of his unusual career switch.

"And the ones in circus were the very interesting and fair dinkum people. They had real adventures - crossing creeks and bringing entertainment to the far-flung corners of the continent."

The stories of those fair dinkum people who have carried on the tradition of circus in Australia since the 1840's are the subject of the Queensland Performing Arts Museum's latest exhibition.

Circus Under the Big Top, on at the Tony Gould Gallery until February, has photographs, costumes and circus props, including one of MacDonnell's ringmaster jackets, that date back to the days when the circus's arrival was heralded by a parade along the main street.

MacDonnell, 63, is still working in the business as the ringmaster of the Eden Bros Circus, which he proudly claims is the third smallest circus in the country.

"With acts and animals from around Australia," he spruiks.

"Lovely ladies and handsome men. Men of mystery, mirth, mime and magic, clowns galore and lots, lots more.

"Memories to last a lifetime for less than a packet of cigarettes.

"It's true that memories do last a lifetime. Everyone can remember the first time they saw an elephant up close."

While for some audiences the new breed of circus has replaced the old-fashioned troupe with its performing animals, MacDonnell says the old-style show is going strong.

"Out of the 14 circuses in Australia today, about 11 are run by families that have been in the business for over a century. The Ashton's, for example, is arguably the longest-running circus in the world," he says.

At the end of the 19th century, it was the major form of public entertainment in Australia, with 1500 people employed. It was an amazing form of entertainment because it was live.

"Australian circus has always been very innovative. Even now with Circus Oz, their material gets knocked off.

"The Australian innovation is still there, just as it is with movies, and dance and theatre."

MacDonnell enjoys the skills of the performers in modern circuses, but says something is missing.

"Performing animals are still a highlight and integral part," he says. "Ask any kiddie what they like best at the circus, and every time it's an animal."

And there are some other differences, he says, between traditional circuses and their modern counterparts.

Many of the modern groups receive government funding and, when they tour, their circus performers prefer to stay in motels rather than the traditional caravan.

MacDonnell says being part of a circus is something that gets into your blood.

"If you want some money, go into real estate," he says. "If you want security, go into the public service. If you want both, become a Qantas pilot.

"But if you want a lifestyle that you really enjoy and you meet people all over Australia and you have a lot of acquaintances, a few friends and a few animals that you like, and like you, that's what we do."