Hard-working circus performers entertain Rushford last week

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up to see the greatest show on earth! 

Rushford area residents heeded that call when the Culpepper & Merriweather Great Combined Circus came to town last Thursday. Total attendance for the two shows, sponsored by the Rushford Peterson Valley Chamber and the Rushford Lions Club, was over 1,000.  

The line of eager circus-goers, which started at the blue and white tents between the Rushford Legion and Hammell Equipment, extended well out to the street before Thursday’s 5:00 performance. 

As they waited for the doors to open, families visited bouncy houses or loaded their arms with circus favorites like cotton candy and Sno-Cones from the concession stand. Also included in the pre-event entertainment was a petting zoo with goats and birds that children could feed for only the cost of some grain, or ponies that stood ready to be ridden. 

When the doors opened, children of all ages filed in, and the bleachers that surrounded three sides of the ring were soon filled. When the seats had filled, folks simply sat on the grass, and were soon joined by eager children abandoning their bleacher seats for a closer view.

Leo the Clown made his way around the audience as the crowd settled in, warming up the circus-goers with his silly antics. When it was time to begin, the lovely ringmaster welcomed everyone to the show before introducing Trey and his big cats. Francis the lion was joined in the circus ring by tigers Solomon and Delilah, much to the delight of the audience. 

The Arlise Troupe out of Canada, known as masters of unicycle artistry, performed many feats of skill delightful to watch, including juggling fire and jump-roping while on the unicycles. Romario Perez skillfully traversed the tightrope on foot and on bike, even donning a blindfold. 

Miss Georgia the contortionist demonstrated her flexibility with ease and grace. Miss Paulina showcased her majestic horses, and Miss Natalie brought out her troupe of talented dogs. Two more death-defying acts included Miss Simone on the flying trapeze, and the Perez men running in and out of the rotating circus wheel. 

All this and more was packed into the ninety-minute show, which included a fifteen minute intermission during which patrons were encouraged to get their faces painted or seek autographs from the performers. 

After the show was over, satisfied customers filed out of the big top, greeted by another long line of families eager to attend the second show. 

With two physically demanding performances back to back, many may have wondered exactly how the circus folk do it. Culpepper & Merriweather’s office manager Alana Green was willing to share some insights from behind the scenes. 

“My superpower is paperwork,” Green laughs, lamenting that all her friends leave her behind when they go on the road in March. Meanwhile Green tends to the business end of things back home, deep within the Red River Valley in Hugo, Okla., also known as Circus City, USA. 

There are three circuses that claim Hugo as their home operating base. The Culpepper & Merriweather Circus moved to Hugo in 2001, 16 years after beginning under humble circumstances in 1985. Over the years the circus has grown, adding employees, animals and equipment.

Circus performers have a grueling schedule, performing seven days a week, two shows per day. The circus season runs from March to October and during that entire stretch, performers only have two days off, one of which is Mother’s Day. “They are the hardest-working people you can imagine!” Green enthuses.

Many of the circus performers who visited Rushford are family. For instance, the Arlise Troupe includes a father and his five young adult children, three of whom were on the road for this tour. 

The co-owners of the circus are Trey the Lion tamer and Simone the trapeze artist, who are husband and wife. The acrobatic Perez family has also been active with the circus for several generations. 

“Circus kids start young,” Green said. Parents homeschool their children while on the road. They train and study during the day, perform at night, and have normal family life between shows. Well as normal as can be expected on the road. 

Animals are obviously a big attraction of the circus and Green spoke of the exemplary care they receive. “Everyone in the industry cares about animals,” she states. “The big cats go to a sanctuary for the four months that the circus is on break. When Trey returns to the sanctuary to pick them up, they come running over to greet him, and eagerly return to their work cage. They love what they do. They’re really quite spoiled.” 

Green also spoke of the elephant sanctuary near their headquarters in Hugo. Because elephants have a long life span, those who perform with the circus needed a place to retire, and Hugo sanctuary provides just the place.

Green concedes that circus work can be very dangerous. “They practice all the time and take every precaution, but people do still get hurt sometimes,” she said, noting  that Trey will not even go into the tent when his wife performs her trapeze act, as he can’t bear to watch. “This is a hard business. People don’t stay in it because it’s easy. You have to have a passion for it.”

The passion of the performers is evident in their act, and also what makes the event so enjoyable to attendees. Green stated her genuine affection for every member of the troupe and concluded, “This is such a close-knit group of people, and they all wear many different hats. It takes a village to put on a circus, and I can tell you, you’re not going to meet a nicer bunch of people.”