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Growing up in the Circus   Print

by Estrella Berosini
JoniMitchell.com
April 16, 2008

Tell us about your childhood. You actually grew up in the circus?

Yes, I grew up in the circus. This is a subject about which I could write at least two books. What most people know about the circus is what we were paid very well to present. It was a show designed to inspire the audience with wondrous possibilities; to free them from their everyday routine, and be drawn into the charisma of humans insistent on unlimited freedom; right down to freedom from gravity itself.

To give the short answer is to lose those details a writer lives to write; all the comedic stories, the pure burn magic, the adventures, but I will compress it into a shorter art form as best I can.

My mother named me Estrella, which means star, in Spanish. She thought my father would cause me to become, like him, a star in the circus. Estrella is a proper name for a circus star. It was a very "difficult" name, too long, ethnic, and unpronounceable, according to the music industry of the 1960s and 70s. Nonetheless, I couldn't bring myself to change it; not even back to my childhood nickname, Estra. Having already built an audience following using my real name, as well the name being a Spanish civil rights issue, I was less ambitious than I was way too picky about authenticity, and honoring my mother's choice.

Being raised in the circus was to live in a nomadic tribe of sorts; a traveling Olympic training camp. It was a camp filled with people who understood, and utilized, the ancient practical magic which millions of people have now come to know as "The Secret".

Circus people where not silly; not unless they were deliberately silly, to make you laugh. We had to be extremely pragmatic. We had to be engineers; all of us, even the little kids. We all had to be absolutely responsible for our own, and everyone else's safety. Lives hung in the balance on a daily basis. Lives hung quite literally in the balance of a highwire walker; in the timing of a trapeze centrifugal swing; in the tiny, directive steps on top of a giant globe. We all had to be absolutely conscious of every animal's state of mind; animals which should not have been there in the first place. They were ready to rage at the first provocation one step over the line of too much unnatural stress. We all had to keep those animals happy and focused, even when they weren't "our" animals. We had to keep ourselves as centered and happy as was humanly possible, if not super humanly possible, otherwise "accidents" happened.

Long before NASA and the Olympics used this technique, before each and every performance, my father stood in silent visualization. He would be in full costume (and this is where I really want to describe at length every satin, silk, and sequin, but I won't), he would stand there, unseen by the audience, behind the canvas wall. His face held what is known as the thousand yard stare, looking into the middle distance, when you are seeing inward; holding a detailed hologram in thought. In this state, he would, step by step, do his entire act in his mind. From walking to the center ring, to taking his final bow.


He walked in like a Flamenco dancer, like a Czech's idea of a Matador, with his black silk Spanish riding hat, white satin and red velvet, silver sequined trim cape over one shoulder, and under the other arm. He was marching with more charisma than he ever needed to capture the full attention of a thousand people, and turning into the wind to begin a swirling cape dance. The cape encircled him, then he raised it up like twirling fire above his head, then snaked it in dahlia flower petal patterns engulfing the circumference of his perfectly slim and agile body. And in one motion, he'd turn the turn, without pause, into striding toward his rigging, with that beautiful cape dragging in the dust behind him. Dragging it with the elegant bravado of a tango dancer sliding his woman across the dance floor. As he approached his starting point, he handed his hat and cape to a woman who looked like a breath taking combination of Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner; that would be my Mother.

This is all happening in my father's head, before he does his act. This is what he taught me to do. He's still behind the canvas, and my brother, Vaclav, Jr, and I are watching him. In his mind, he begins to walk up the wire, at a 45 degree angle, to the high platform. He took every step, did every trick in his act, all without a net, and walked back down the wire, and took his magnetic bow to thunderous applause, all before the Ring Master ever said his name. Then, after he was announced, as all his energy was focused into a searing laser beam, he pointed at my brother and me and said, "You make sure I stay up there".

He did not say, "You make sure I don't fall". He said, " You make sure I stay up there", and that choice of words was the difference between life and death.

My brother and I would then watch his entire act, with the certainty that what our little minds thought kept him up there as much as all his ability. Circus people were all in total agreement that all would go as it should. If someone didn't wish you well, you could really feel it. If someone was walking around un-centered or unconsciously, and not deliberately creating a safe attraction, someone would shout, "Hey you! Wake up! Watch what your doing!" And if someone was a little off that day, you'd see a clutch of performers, spontaneously gathered, peeking through the canvas opening, all working to project centered safety toward whomever needed it. To a non-circus observer, they looked like they were just watching the act from backstage, but they had actually joined in a consensus, rarely spoken out loud, a consensus of energy they used, everyday, like clay in a sculptor's hands.


Sometimes a few performers would spontaneously go out in the arena, and stand as extra spotters, with a dressing robe over their costume, when they sensed something might go wrong. You had to know what was coming. You had to sense the timing in the air. You had to learn to see the invisible, and around corners. And you had to do all that, with the kind of iron clad, laughing optimism which would allow the near miraculous to occur.

[[[[[Now, don't forget, you asked me to tell you about my childhood, and what was it like being raised in the circus. I know I'm using a lot of fantastic images, and unruly adjectives, and other unbelievable extravagances, but, you asked the question. I'm not one to minimize for credibility or comfort. There's only one state of mind, state of life, that could allow my father to walk the high wire from age four, without a net, two or three times a day, without ever having broken so much as a toe, or even a toenail, in 56 years. You can't do that without living a way "larger than life" life. In all the years of growing up in the circus, the only person I ever saw die in the ring, died of a heart attack, and that was because his wife had died of cancer the month previous. Both having nothing to do with their act or coordination. The way I'm writing this depicts the feel of the state of mind required to defy the usual laws of nature and probability.]]]]]

It was this kind of mental rehearsal and imaging that kept my father uninjured and alive. It also kept the audience riveted on him. These mental techniques also worked for my Dad when he volunteered to fight on Iwo Jima, in WW2. It took a great deal of energy to shape the energy of the surrounding universe. Consequently, the main subjects which occupied every circus performer in between shows were, can you guess, comedy, music, story telling, and dancing. Sure, someone was always practicing a new trick, tending to animals, making meals, sewing costumes, fixing vehicles, or resting, but, not at the expense of always looking for a better piece of comedy, or everyone stopping what their doing just to hear my father's unbelievably exquisite singing voice, and our three part harmony.

There was an ongoing sport in the circus. It was the twentyfour/seven avocation of every man, woman, child, and large brained mammal. Everyone was always hunting the small, illusive, wild game, otherwise known as comedy.You could see it in everybody's eyes. No matter what else they were doing, there was that gleaming eye scanning the general terrain; hunting down that fuzzy butt of a joke, scuttling off to hide from embarrassment. When it happened, then all the hunters darted the little thing and took their version of it's carcass back to their trailer; to work on their recipe of the best possible way to tell it. And everyone had a chance to tell their version of the hysterically funny thing that happened. It was a competition with everyone as judge. Everyone was happy to let go of their interpretation in favor of the best other rendition. Most often, the story would be a combination of everyone's best lines, memorized by all. Everyone was a comedian. Everyone was a small game hunter. Laughter made all that freedom exist.


This is something my brother learned very well. He had three more years of it than I had, and he raised me to be his perfect "straight man". I learned to feed him lines, and ask the right question, which allowed him to deliver the punch line at the right moment. Jackson Browne did not want my brother to play bass on his tour because he was the world's best bass player, he wanted him because he was so funny in-between shows. He's unbelievably funny in hotels, in truck stops, on a side walk, and anywhere life needs to be hysterically funny. He became what we think of now as a cross between Robin Williams and Jim Carry. Sure he could play bass, marimba, guitar, sing the best harmony you've ever heard, juggle any three or four objects, ride a unicycle, walk a wire, ride a unicycle on the wire, impersonate any person or animal he met, be a serious actor at the drop of a director's hat, and many other things, but, he was, and is, undiluted comedy manifest. Conservatively speaking, I spent at least 60 percent of my childhood doubled over, can't catch a breath, beating the ground, begging for mercy, laughing my head off. And he would usually hold back the punch line until I had a mouth full of lunch.

Dad was pretty good at constructing a joke, and inventing a full length, spoken, movie story. But, no matter how good my father was at these things, or at walking on the wire, he was a musician first. At a very young age, in Czechoslovakia, he was considered a child prodigy on the violin. An ear musician, my Grandfather would play classical violin concertos on the newly invented phonograph, and my father would know it by the second or third time he heard it. He also learned the five row, chromatic key, giant accordion. It didn't have a piano keyboard on one side, it was all buttons. This instrument gave a sound more like all the instruments in an orchestra. He also learned the guitar. These instruments gave a rich accompaniment for his perfect pitched, three octave voice. He wielded that voice with the phrasing of Frank Sinatra, and melted women into a swoon with the tenderness in a love song.

To this day, even at the age of 90, my father still practices music several hours a day. When I was growing up, my father primarily played music, and was occasionally interrupted by sleeping, eating, wire walking, and other rude necessities. In the months before I was born, I listened to the most beautiful voice, singing the most beautiful melodies ever written in Europe or by Gershwin, Hoagie Carmichael, Benny Goodman, and the best of the 30s and 40s composers. My mother supplied the multilayered rhythms of the rumba, samba, pachanga, cha cha, merrengue', early rock n' roll, Cajun, and the best black soul found on the radio and live at the state fairs. I rocked n' rolled around in my amniotic pool, learning to dance these rhythms from the inside out. Before I was born I was hard wired for sound, riveted to rhythm, and born with a maniacal obsession for singing music and lyrics. At two years old I was singing songs my parents never heard before.
I had learned them from the radio. My father looked at me with the intensity of a scientist peering into a petree dish, having accidentally invented penicillin. I had achieved his undivided attention, which was like standing in the beam of a 4000 volt spot light. In this tiny little girl, he had in his possession a totally willing receptacle for the one thing he loved above everything else: Music.

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