2000s Archive

The Showiest Show on Earth

Originally Published January 2003
A former circus clown finds beauty, truth, and art in Monaco.

About ten minutes before show time, the ushers start scurrying. They run down the red carpet, grab handfuls of patrons, tug at their minks and silk suits, and push them toward their seats. The big top is not even full, and yet there is a buzz of anticipation. A gaggle of two dozen photographers stand in the ring and aim their lenses at the brightly lit front door. A group of children enter, bearing flags. A brass band bursts into the Marche du Festival. The audience begins to clap in unison.

And then, through the door, march the stars of the show. Leading the parade is a slightly stooped grandfather, a near octogenarian, round in the waist, with a shock of white hair that would be the envy of any of Hollywood’s leading elders. This evening, Prince Rainier is accompanied by two of his three children: Albert, the heir apparent, a head taller than his father though much less blessed with hair, and Stephanie, the notoriously troubled younger daughter, who tonight, with two of her children in hand, seems perfectly serene.

The family strides up the carpeted ramp and steps into the royal box, just inches from the ring. The paparazzi snap furiously, dousing the royals in a barrage of flashes as unrelenting as their subjects’ bland smiles. Then, seconds later, with a wave from the press director, the flashes cease, the photographers disband, and the 26th Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo begins.

And for the first time since he arrived in the tent, the prince flashes a genuine smile.

Monaco is one of the anomalies of Europe. A jewel-encrusted principality surrounded by France, it’s smaller than any other country except Vatican City—smaller than New York’s Central Park—yet large enough to lure glitterati, gamblers, and gem thieves from around the globe. Or at least it used to be. What Katharine Hepburn once called “a pimple on the chin of the south of France” has been ruled by the Grimaldi family for more than 700 years. Refugees from Italy, the Grimaldis broke through the castle walls in 1297 and took the town by force. After struggling with France for centuries, they sold 90 percent of their territory to Paris in 1861 in return for independence. Moving aggressively to open spas, hotels, beaches, and especially a casino (gambling was illegal in France), the family turned their nearly square-mile town into a tax-free playpen for wealthy Europeans. This reputation only grew with the establishment of an opera house (1879), a horseless carriage race (1894), and eventually the Grand Prix (1929). Got money? Go to Monaco.

But maintaining a steady stream of tourists proved difficult, so in the 1970s the family redoubled its efforts to hold tourist-drawing events around the calendar. Enter the circus. Rainier III, by all accounts, has been a circus fan ever since he was called Fat Monaco as a pudgy student at boarding school in Britain and dreamed of running away to join the world of greasepaint and sawdust. The prince has dabbled with animal training, and is said to have a private zoo and a circus trailer stashed away in the palace.

At the time the festival started, in 1974, the circus as an institution was also going through something of an identity crisis. Circuses in Europe—small, one-ring affairs with fixed buildings and highly trained artists—have traditionally been more respected than their American counterparts. Much of the bluster that Americans associate with the circus comes from Phineas T. Barnum, who, in the late 19th century, took the American circus on the road, blew it up to three rings, and put it under the big top. Traveling circuses stayed on the outskirts of town, set up sideshows, and developed a reputation (true in many cases) of being one part sham, one part entertainment, and one part once-in-a-lifetime, never-seen-anywhere razzmatazz. I saw this firsthand in the early ’90s, when I spent a year performing as a clown with America’s Clyde Beatty–Cole Bros. Circus.

The appeal of the show, in many ways, was its realness —the heat from the elephants or the danger of being shot out of a cannon. Both American and European circuses have been fighting in recent decades to compete with Hollywood, video games, and a world full of remote controls and special effects. Enter the festival— the prince of Monaco holds a circus in his backyard —a gift of exposure, glamour, and, most of all, prestige. The Golden Clowns awarded at the end of the week quickly got dubbed the Oscars of the circus world.

The prince’s elevation of the circus to the level of royalty happened at exactly the same time that his children were dragging the royal family down to the level of sideshow performers. Caroline, Albert, and Stephanie often seem to spend more time in the tabloids than in the family business. Stephanie even lived for a few years with an elephant trainer. If the Grimaldis lent some of their royalty to the circus, the circus seems to have lent some of its razzmatazz to the family. These two colorful institutions had morphed into each other. The unspoken secret of the Festival International du Cirque is that it’s really a two-ring show.

And what a show it is. The circus in Monte Carlo during festival week is unlike any other in the world. The royal family sits in the front box at every performance, and the audience spends as much time looking at them as they do looking at the performers. The audience itself is composed largely of local socialites and aristocratic wannabes, there primarily to say they rubbed furs and ascots with the royals.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of sitting through six four-hour performances in the year-round tent is that outside the ring there is no dirt, no mess, and no smell . The circus in America smells like a barnyard. The circus in Monte Carlo smells like a duty-free shop.

bruce feiler,
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