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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.

But the most remarkable aspect of the spectacle is the show itself. In any given year, the circus put on by the festival in Monte Carlo really is the greatest show on earth. The prince invites top acts from around the world to compete against one another for the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Clowns.

This year’s performance included a North Korean acrobatic troupe making a rare appearance in the West; a Chinese troupe presenting the debut of an act that mixes tumbling and ballet; tigers, elephants, camels, and poodles; a father-son contortionist team from Guyana; an American trapeze act; and a Spanish wire-walking family long considered the best act of its generation. The competition was intense, but the mood among the performers was largely one of joy and wonder, since most were grateful for the invitation, the free room and board, and the lavish working conditions.

“We come for the experience,” said Gary Jahn, an English tiger trainer and part of a sixth-generation circus family. “This audience really knows what it’s seeing.”

Monaco today is a throwback to an age of opulence, inviting rich Europeans to come to show off the tiaras and Rollses they hide in their daily lives. Above all, it’s a guilt-free zone: Epcot Jet Set. Partly to make the well-to-do feel at home (and partly to keep away the paparazzi), the principality employs draconian security.

It would be easy to mock the Grimaldis: their tabloid lives, their peculiar principality with cameras hidden in every lamppost and guards on every corner, their casino and hotels, and all the Brinks trucks they require. But I was stunned by their stamina. They arrived promptly at the start of the circus and stayed until the end, four hours later. This was followed by dinner, then a jury meeting at ten-thirty the following morning, and, at least on one day, a brunch at twelve-thirty. And they did this not for one day, but for six. During circus week, the Grimaldis are the hardest-working family in show business.

By the end of the second day, speculation had it that the top award would likely go to a combination of the Koreans, the Chinese, and the Spanish wire-walkers. The member of the Korean troupe who does their most difficult trick—the quadruple somersault—injured his ankle on the first night, which threw their chances in doubt. The Chinese acrobats, meanwhile, mesmerized the crowd with a trick in which a female tumbler, Wu Zhendan, dressed in a tutu, performed an arabesque on the forehead of her partner, Wei Baohua. In almost two decades of watching circuses, in nearly a dozen countries, I found this act to be the most beautiful I have ever seen.

But by far the most conversation focused on the Spaniards. In the 1980s, the Quiros, descendants of a multigenerational wire-walking family, had a high-energy, deeply dangerous routine that involved three brothers and a sister who ran, jumped rope, rode bicycles, dueled with sabers, and built pyramids on the high wire. In the early 1990s (when he and I worked together in the Beatty–Coles Circus), one of the brothers, Angel, fled the troupe to marry a Mexican woman of whom his mother disapproved. For two years, the brothers did not speak.

After a time they reunited and returned to their triumphant place in the wire-walking world. But in 1999, Angel slipped on the wire in Richmond, Virginia, and fell to the ground, breaking his back, several ribs, his collarbone, and his wrist. He would never perform again.

The two surviving brothers struggled to rebuild the act, recruiting a younger brother and a cousin to round out their team. The new act had come to Monaco to reclaim their reputation. On Sunday afternoon, the four men pranced spiritedly around the back of the tent, moments before their second and final performance.

“We’re nervous,” said Roberto, the elder brother.

To improve their odds, the brothers had completely redesigned their act, casting aside their Spanish costumes and music for a newer image, based on Fred Astaire, with white top hats and tails. The new look—and new equipment—cost $45,000. Is a Golden Clown really worth that?

“I think so,” Roberto said.

“Because of the jobs you can get,” I asked, “or because of your heart?”

“For us, the heart. No wire act has ever won the gold. Nobody from Spain has ever won anything.”

As the moment approached, he finished limbering up, blindfolded himself, then practiced jumping over his brother and landing on the wire. His father arrived, along with his wife. Other performers, who had been smoking and flirting outside, began trickling into the tent. It is a sign of how good the Quiros are that every single performer came to watch them. Out in the ring, the trumpets blared, and the introduction sounded. The four men held hands, made the sign of the cross, then darted through the tent flap into the light.

Later that night, the performers, along with socialites and circus executives, gathered in the ballroom of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel. Lining the walls were long tables of sushi and roast meats interspersed with flowers, fresh fruit and nuts, and ice sculptures of dancing bears. The royal family sat in the center of the room, eating caviar out of tins the size of snare drums. The performers, many in formal dress, tiptoed tentatively around, yet somehow they seemed as if they belonged.

After dinner, Prince Rainier announced the awards, and each act stood as its name was called. The American trapeze artists won a bronze, as did two other acts. The North Koreans shared silver with a sensational juggler named Picasso Junior.

The first Golden Clown went to Wei Baohua and Wu Zhendan, the Chinese pas de deux. The excitement mounted; the Quiros shifted in their seats. At last Prince Rainier announced the final Clown d’Or: “The Quiros troupe!”

Immediately, the room erupted. The brothers jumped to their feet and began hugging one another, and a flurry of fellow performers and circus people swarmed their table. For several minutes, the room seemed to pulse with hugs, high fives, and shouts of glee. After a while, Roberto emerged from the scrum. He was crying. “I worked very hard for this, my whole life,” he said. “Finally, we made it.” As he spoke, his wife appeared by his side. The two realized they had yet to congratulate each other. Roberto leaned over and kissed Carlinda on the cheek.

“For España,” he said.

“For España,” she repeated.

Then the couple embraced.

A few minutes later, I walked back to my hotel, past the perfectly manicured town square, past the casino overlooking the Mediterranean. The magic of the circus is that it creates a perfectly idealized realm, I thought, where performers and audience members step out of their daily lives and agree to participate in a fantasy come to life, where all the men are strong, all the women are beautiful, people can fly, and bears can dance. Monaco, I realized, is exactly the same. It’s a place designed to make illusions seem real. And in a few short days, I had come to believe that I belonged in this world, where every car is a Rolls-Royce, every night is a royal feast, and every dream comes true.

I was startled when it began to rain.

bruce feiler,