This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The theme of this year's Circus Flora is "A Trip to the Moon," an homage to the 1902 fantasy film of the same name, but on Friday night there was no moon to be seen in the angry skies above the big red tent in Grand Center. Inside, a fanciful replica of the moon smiled over the circus ring. The opening night crowd was enjoying itself mightily, focused on entertainment, not the weather.
As the first half of the program came to a rousing close, with Janine Del'Arte's band blaring out oom-pahs, the audience of more than 1,000 rose to give an enthusiastic standing ovation to the Flying Wallendas, who had mixed a bicycle, a lawn chair and a top-hat sized hunk of "moon cheese" into the high wire act that is one of the most cherished perennials of this circus. Narrator Cecil MacKinnon, glittering in a star-streaked cloak and wizard's hat, announced it was time for a 15-minute intermission.
Then sirens sounded, and she immediately changed the announcement: a tornado warning was in effect, and the audience was to make an "orderly exit" out of the tent and walk "calmly" westward across Grand Blvd. to a shelter in the basement of Corcoran Veterans Hospital at Grand and Delmar.
In recent times, for good reason, those of us who live in the middle of the country have become more alert to the dangers of tornadoes, and after some momentary milling, and a few more reassuring but firm words from MacKinnon, the crowd began filing out of the tent and headed through a light drizzle toward the sanctuary of the large hospital.
Several tornadoes were reported in the area, but only heavy thunderstorms swept across Grand Center. Meanwhile, the audience, or at least most of it, was sheltered inside the hospital, and most of the circus people were tending to their animals in the big tent or in their trailers. Johnny Peers and his dozen or more dogs, the Muttville Comix, found shelter in the Green Room of Powell Hall, where the St. Louis Symphony was performing the music of the long-defunct rock group Queen.
By the time the storm had cleared the area, it was well after 9 o'clock, too late to start again, particularly given the large number of children in the audience, said executive director Joel Emery. "By the time we could have reassembled audience and performers," he said, "it would have been after 10 o'clock, and I don't think anyone wanted that."
Circus Flora's artistic director, David Balding, said the decision to evacuate had been made the moment the sirens went off. "I'm pleased it was so orderly," he said. This was the first time in the circus's 27 years in St. Louis that part of a public performance has been cancelled due to weather.
Emery said anyone who purchased a ticket for Friday's night's performance could get free admission to another show by calling MetroTix, 314-534-1111, or the circus box office, 314-289-4040. No ticket stub is required.
On the evidence of what I saw Friday night, the circus this year is particularly lively and full of wit and humor. Some years the "theme" seems extraneous to the actual performance, but this year the idea of a trip to the moon seems central to the show. Very effective use is made of the film itself, which projected on the inside of the tent and on a screen at the entrance to the ring.
There are several new acts this year, including Chaplinesque clown Rob Torres, who is skilled at making the audience part of his routine. Torres is a delight, although a longtime circus fan missed the acrobatic clowning of Giovanni Zoppe ("Nino"). Balding said Zoppe has taken a year off for personal reasons, but he hopes he will be back.
It is always a pleasure to see the St. Louis Arches, the acrobatic troupe made up of young people from this area under the direction of Jessica Hentoff. Her son, Kellin Quinn Hentoff-Killian, is one of the solo acts this year, dazzling the audience with his ballet-like juggling. And there is something irresistible about the "Our Gang" antics of Johnny Peer and his dogs, all rescued from shelters and all talented. Keep your eyes open for the terrier that can climb two ladders at once.
The circus will continue through June 23, presumably without future interruptions. Show times are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 1 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5:30 p.m. "Little Top Wednesday" at 10 a.m. presents a special one-hour show for smaller kids
Call 314-289-4040 or visit www.circusflora.org for tickets and more information.