The big top is back in town and 800 bums in seats twice a day, six days a week, show the enduring fascination the circus holds for local audiences, even in the digital age.
But behind the grease-paint, glitter, glamour and fantastic feats of skill and courage, involving flying high above the ground or controlling unpredictable and fierce animals in the ring, Brian Boswell’s Circus is all about people.
Fittingly enough, it is headed by Brian Boswell, 69, who has been in the business for decades. Boswell joined his father in 1962 and went on to open up his own circus in 1982 – and it has been touring SA ever since.
Boswell complains of a sore hip joint and has a slight limp, but his excitement and enthusiasm for the circus is as pure as that of a child.
“The energy inside the circus is better than magic,” says Boswell.
Another who has been around for decades is the white-faced clown who gets audiences to chuckle at his silly jokes and antics. Beneath the white paint is 58-year-old Stanley Bower, who used to wow audiences with his agile, powerful body and his daring stunts on the trapeze.
“Many bottles of vodka have been drunk since then,” says Bower, looking at a picture of himself from the 1980s when he was the “catcher” in a trapeze act.
Both Bower and Boswell have fond memories of their lives devoted to the circus. They remember the days of Tickey the clown and how he was a “legend of his time”.
“People recognised Tickey and my father everywhere they went,” says Boswell.
Bower adds that Tickey spent his last days doing odd jobs around the circus. He died aged 72 in 1988.
“People never leave the circus completely even after they retire because being in the circus becomes part of their daily lives,” said Bower.
Brian Boswell’s 39-year-old daughter, Georgina, echoes this sentiment.
“This is a lifestyle. You wake up in the morning and you’re at work but you are at home at the same time,” she says. Georgina became ring master at the age of 15 and prides herself on being the eighth generation of Boswells to live and work in circuses.
“We are all family here even though we are not all related,” says Georgina. “There are families from Mongolia, China, Russia, Germany, America, Germany and all over.”
According to Brian Boswell, about 100 people are employed at the circus. However, only about 60 of them travel at a time because of expenses involved, chief of which is diesel.
“To move this entire set-up just one kilometre costs R1 500,” says Boswell.
Bower, who describes the circus as a “village of people who travel and live in caravans”, says people sometimes become disillusioned when they see what it takes to be part of a circus.
“I may train 10 people on the trapeze and find that only three go on to be successful because it’s about more than physical ability,” says Bower.
For children like eight-year-old Kevin Enksaruul, who was born at the circus, the life of travelling and home-schooling is normal. When they get older they may meet the perfect love match right inside the ring; Georgina, for example, met her husband Martin de Jager while working at the circus. De Jager is a trapeze artist, a juggler, works with the acrobats and also helps put up tents.
Georgina says their daughter, Madison, who is almost a year old, is already getting the hang of what circus life is all about. She will probably learn everything from feeding the circus animals to flipping pancakes and making candy floss for sale, to performing on the trapeze or become a ring master like her mother.
The elephant ring master, David Marais, 33, has been living his circus dreams since the day the Brian Boswell Circus arrived in his home town of Port Elizabeth 17 years ago. He has also been the human cannonball and done motorbike stunts.
His brothers Ivan, 32, Neil, 26, and Gregory, 28, have also found a home in Boswell’s Circus.
One thing is for certain, however: it will be a long time before the Boswell circus magic dies.
The circus is in the back parking lot of Suncoast Casino and will be in town until August 5. The next stop is Queensburgh then it moves to Pietermaritzburg. In addition to even the smaller towns in SA, the circus travels to Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique and Botwsana at least once a year.
There are two shows daily and prices range from R70 to R130. Show times from Tuesday to Friday are 3.30pm and 7.30pm, on Saturday 2pm, 5pm and 7.30pm and on Sunday 2pm and 5pm. There is a special performance this Saturday night where the entry fee will be a blanket which will go to the East Coast Radio Winter Warmth campaign.