‘Family fun that’s exciting’

When Cornell “Tuffy” Nicholas calls out “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages . . .” this weekend at the circus in Waikapu, he will be reciting the age-old call of the ringmaster while paying respects to his dad and his legacy.

The last part of the call, “children of all ages,” was added by his father, Angelo Nicholas aka “Count Nicholas,” to the ringmaster’s introduction, Tuffy Nicholas said Wednesday in a phone interview.

“I grew up in the circus,” said the ringmaster/producer of the Modern American Circus, which has set up tent at the Maui Tropical Plantation and gets underway today.

“My father was a ringmaster.”

In fact, the Count was “one of the most famous circus ringmasters in America,” running the three rings of maybe the most famous circus in the world, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, from 1951 to 1955, the website Circuses and Sideshows says.

It was a time that when “the circus came to town it was a momentous event,” said Nicholas. The circus was like “a huge traveling city” with 1,400 people packing in crowds of 18,000 under the big top, he said.

Beginning with the introduction of television to society, the crowds began to diminish, Nicholas said. The growth of sports, theater and concerts further took its toll on circus audiences.

Nicholas said he does not lament the changing landscape; “the world progresses,” he said.

The circus has had to “modernize” and bring in new, modern and exciting acts “not seen before,” he said.

“The first thing I look for is quality,” the ringmaster/producer said about evaluating new acts for the show. He eyes the presentation, new twists, music, costumes, smile.

“All the attributes to be a quality performer is what I look for,” he said.

Nicholas also looks for diversity of entertainment.

“We don’t want all one of an act,” he said, noting that the circus should feature daring, beauty and grace. The acts should “make you sweat your palms” as well as “make your hands clap,” he said.

“The circus will never go away,” Nicholas said. “It’s good, clean, family fun that’s exciting. It’s a form of entertainment that’s going to be around forever.”

One could say that Nicholas was born to be a ringmaster. He came into the world in Sarasota, Fla., the winter home of the circus, to the Count and Alice, who was a bear trainer, according to the Modern American Circus website.

Nicholas said he was “the world’s youngest ringmaster” at age 3. Actually, he was an honorary ringmaster on a parade float for the circus, the Modern American Circus website said.

Nicholas actually didn’t become a full-fledged ringmaster until later in his career. He began as an acrobatic performer on the trampoline and teeterboard and doing tumbling.

It wasn’t until he was injured during training that he became a concession manager, then a ringmaster and later a producer. Others recognized his talent and “he was fast-tracked up the ranks to eventually manage and produce large shows and entertainment events,” according to the circus website.

He called his becoming ringmaster “a progression of what you do. . . . Circus kids do similar things their parents do.”

“It’s in me,” Nicholas said, referencing the expression “you have sawdust in your veins.”

He has been a ringmaster for 25 years and will don the garb for the shows in Waikapu. The ringmaster’s role is to “emphasize the action and dramatize what is going on in the show to make it more exciting,” he explained.

Being a performer in the circus is dangerous, he said, and despite the best efforts to maintain safety, accidents – as has been shown recently by tragedies at Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas – can occur. A ringmaster has to be able to handle those situations, as well.

“Years ago, there was a fall. Fortunately, she was OK. There was a moment of heartache until we found out that she was OK,” he said, adding “I don’t even like talking about accidents.”

As the ringmaster, he had to bring in the clowns to lighten the mood and keep things going following the fall, “as the show must go on,” Nicholas said.

For the last two decades, he’s been a producer. His resume on the circus website says that he has produced and managed more than 5,000 shows in the U.S. and worldwide, including the Moscow International Circus, Apollo Circus of Soul, International All Star Circus, Cirque America, Cirque Hawaii, Cirque Polynesia, Concerts America and The Great American Circus.

“I love it,” said the ringmaster/producer. “I have had a very lucky life in the circus.”

His troupe of more than 30 circus performers from around the world, including Hawaii, will perform acrobatic flights, comedy, magic, drama and dance and feats of strength, balance and glamour in Waikapu in five shows this weekend.

There will be clowns but no performing animals in the show.

Show times are 7:30 p.m today; 1, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. Sunday.

Ticket prices vary. General admission tickets for bleachers cost $26 for those 13 years old and up, with children 4 to 12 priced at $16. Premium seating for all ages costs $36 per person, while a VIP seat goes for $51. Children young enough to sit on someone’s lap will get in free.

Nicholas recommended buying tickets online because they are cheaper and benefit the nonprofit Kama’aina Kids.

For ticket or other information call (808) 781-4773 or visit www.modernamericancircus.com.

A number of other nonprofit groups benefit from ticket sales. Groups include Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and United Cerebral Palsy.

The traveling Modern American Circus is a “relatively new show,” said Nicholas. The show began its U.S. and international tour in Hawaii in September with performances on Molokai, Oahu and the Big Island, and shows are set for Nov. 16 and 17 on Kauai, he said.

Nicholas said the circus then will head to Asia and the Mainland.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.