Circus Smirkus | The Big Question with Founder Rob Mermin
Rob Mermin fulfilled a common dream: he ran away and joined the circus. He toured Europe and Canada, became friends with Marcel Marceau, and later taught at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Then the Connecticut native returned to New England and started a circus of his own. Circus Smirkus began in a barn in Greensboro, Vermont, and is now the only touring youth circus in the country. We spoke with the 63-year-old Mermin about getting “sawdust in your veins” at his home in Montpelier, Vermont.
“I’d never seen a real circus when I was a kid. No little traveling circus came to my hometown. So I didn’t get inspired as a kid to want to run off to join the circus. But I was very athletic, and in fourth grade it bothered me that my left hand couldn’t do what my right hand could do. So I asked my teacher if I could do a study of ambidexterity. In order to do that, I started to teach myself how to juggle, and I realized, ‘Okay, the left hand can do what the right hand does when you’re juggling.’ Then I started balancing on things and balancing on wires, all on my own in the backyard.”
“It wasn’t until I was 19 that I decided to run off and join the circus. I wanted to see the world and travel, but I didn’t have any money, so I said, ‘What skills do I have?’ I could juggle, I could walk on a wire, I could maybe do some clowning. ‘Let me go off and see if I can get a job in the circus and see the world that way–and get paid for it.’ I did find a circus. I was hitchhiking around England and had about $50 in my pocket.”
“I thought I’d just be part of the tent crew or something. They said, ‘What can you do?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m a clown.’ I was really trying to say I wanted to be a clown and I’d like to apprentice myself, you know, to a clown. They said, ‘Okay, clown! The show starts in about an hour. Quick, get your makeup on.’ They threw me right in the ring that very day.”
“They said, ‘You, go get the camel.’ I said, ‘What camel?’ There was a camel tied to a stake. I got the camel. I thought I was just going to walk it around with the rope, but instead these five hooligan brothers who ran the circus threw me on top of the camel, a one-hump thing, and, nothing to sit on, so I’m scrambling up his back, trying to get to the hump. And they whacked the camel, and the camel started running around the ring, galloping. And I’m flapping. My legs are flapping in the wind and I’m hugging the hump, trying not to fall off and get trampled. That was my big entrance into the circus!”
“What I wanted to do was come back to the States, start my own little circus in the European style. It would be a one-ring tent and I would work with kids to give them the experience I had. I started talking a little bit to my family and my mother. ‘Circus smirkus, go get a real job!’ That’s what she said. But she came around.”
“I got a little tent, but I had no more money to put anything in it. Everybody told me, ‘Well, if you have to do this, just do it indoors in a theatre, it’ll be much easier.’ No, not for me, I said: ‘If it’s going to be a traditional circus, I’m going to do it the old-fashioned way, in a little tent traveling in the countryside.’ I ended up in northern Vermont [because] I wanted to live out in the country. I bought an old farmhouse that was falling down [and] I was living with all the animals that would come in. I had raccoons and skunks. And my dog.”
“I taught local farm kids how to juggle and walk the wire, and because farm families were fairly poor, they paid me in firewood, homemade jams, and pickled vegetables. It got me through the year. And then I got together with some professional friends of mine [and] the farm kids and said, ‘We’re ready, let’s do the show!'”
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