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Running Away With The Circus, And Bringing It All Back Home

Flying High

It's around 6 o'clock, on a warm fall evening and in one Bloomington backyard several people are standing on a small platform 15 feet in the air. It's just one part of a huge high-flying trapeze rig.

Bernadette Pace reaches out with a long hook to pull the trapeze toward her. She takes the bar in both hands, and calls out a trick to the catcher. He accepts her request, readies himself, and calls out to her: "Ready?" she affirms, now in position - leaning out over the 20 foot, poised to swing.

I came to Indiana in 1983 with a high flying trapeze and a burning passion to fly.

She jumps back, her feet lifting off the pedestal… and then she is in flight. Watch Bernadette Fly

It's the daily practice for a troupe of high flying trapeze artists known as the Bloomington High Flyers. Dozens of performers have passed through the troupe's ranks since Pace founded it in the early 80s. At present there are around 8-10 members.

Pace's backyard has been the crucible of a circus community for the last 30 years, but over a century ago, just a few miles west of here, Bloomington grew its own nationally touring circus and hosted many others.

Circus Past

"Actually, the Gentry farm was right in this area..."

Kristina Downs is making reference to a stretch of land along South Rogers Street in Bloomington, where the childhood home of Henry Gentry used to sit.

"I know the house was somewhere around where the Cook Pharmica is now," Downs tells me. "But I also know that the property itself stretched to the railroad tracks, which are now the B-Line. So, somewhere in there, if we're not on the property we're very close to the property."

Downs  is a slack-rope walker, and an aerialist who has been training in circus since 2003. But she is also a doctoral candidate in Folklore at Indiana University.

"Back in the rail days, Bloomington was at the juncture of a lot of railroads," Downs explains, "so a lot of the bigger circuses stopped in Bloomington that wouldn't have necessarily stopped in towns of this size because it was a convenient place to stop. So Ringling Brothers, Hagenbeck-Wallace would always do shows in Bloomington.

Back in the rail days, Bloomington was at the juncture of a lot of railroads, so a lot of the bigger circuses stopped in Bloomington that wouldn't have necessarily stopped in towns of this size.Â

"Henry Gentry actually had started with a different show … He as a teenager joined up with a show that was coming through town that was a show of trained dogs, and traveled with that show for a while, and ended up getting ripped off by the owner of the show. So he kind of returned to Bloomington, penniless, with his tail between his legs… but, very interested in running these shows.

"So, as the story goes [Henry Gentry] started training stray dogs he found on the streets of Bloomington in his family's barn, and in either 1887 or 1888...he had his first show downtown on the courthouse squarethere used to be an opera house where the fountain square mall is now. He made I think $8 off his first show … But, word of mouth was so positive over the show that the next night they did over 100 dollars in sales.

"So that was the start, he started with trained dogs, and then convinced his brothers to go on tour with him. Initially they had one rail car and the dogs would sleep on one half of the rail car and the four brothers would sleep on the other half of the rail car. And then they started getting ponies also... So they were literally a dog and pony show.

"Then gradually it grew. It became more and more popular, [Henry Gentry] started performing instead of in concert halls, performing under canvas like a regular circus, got more and more animals, and then started adding human acts also, all of your traditional circus acts, aerialists, rope walkers, clowns."

Despite the Gentry Brothers' growing popularity, the show remained very much connected to Bloomington.

"They would always do their first show of the year in Bloomington," Downs says.

"The big circus grounds were on campus where Dunn Meadow is now, on the IU campus, that was where Gentry always had their first show. Children always got into that first show for free. Gentry was always really dedicated to making a family friendly show. Gentry was always very dedicated to a show where 'Ladies and Children can go to without any fear.'"

"They eventually wound up having four companies of the circus that would tour the country, with one brother running each company. And that kind of hit its height sometime around the late 1900s, early 19-teens. And then in 1916, Henry Gentry just sort of decided he wanted to get out of the business."

Even though Henry Gentry had left the circus business, he still had a special place in his heart for the town that helped him get his start, his hometown, Bloomington.

"[Henry Gentry] is kind of attributed with being the reason why IU is still here in Bloomington," Downs says. "Because after the fire that burned down the campus there was talk of rather than rebuilding it in Bloomington, rebuilding it in Indianapolis. And the story is that Henry Gentry went to Indianapolis with a suitcase full of money and by the time he came home, they had decided that IU should remain in Bloomington."

After Henry Gentry retired the Gentry Brothers' circus in 1916, it was almost 70 years before the circus came back to town.

Circus Present

"I came to Indiana in 1983 with a high flying trapeze and a burning passion to fly," Bernadette Pace remarks, "And in the 33 years I've been here, hundreds of young people have had the opportunity and the thrill of flying on the high flying trapeze. We started a circus groups doing many different acts, and it all went from there."

You could call Pace the matriarch of the circus arts community in Bloomington, though she'd probably laugh at you, deny it, and tell you this all has been a huge team effort.

However, not one of the circus arts teachers, practitioners or entrepreneurs that I spoke to for this story was unaware of who Pace was. In fact, most of them were trained by or trained with Pace at some point in their careers.

"Bernadette lent me money to buy my first house," Julianna Burrell reveals. "She's like my Hoosier mama, since my mom used to live in Brazil, she's here now."

Burrell is the owner of Asa Bela Aerial Arts. She's spent 25 years in the circus arts, performed around the country with circuses, and she began her training in circus in Pace's backyard.

"Bernadette was one of the first people to teach me Aerial Silks," says Laura Pence. "She was an early instructor at Flight Club, and an incredible inspiration."

Pence, another student of Bernadette's, trained with Pace in aerial silks at Flight Club, a Bloomington aerial arts club that has since dissolved. Pence co-owns Aeriology, an aerial arts and fitness company in Bloomington.

"I met [Bernadette] the second time I was in class, and I watched her do a little improvisational routine … and I just knew anything was possible

No Fear Of Flying

Hannah Bobzien was just 7 years old when she and her mother visited Bernadette's backyard for the first time, and got their first taste of the flying trapeze.

"Yes. Yes, I was the little seven-year-old that Bernadette … so, if you're tall enough you can just be held by your waist, and then you lean to the bar, but if you're small enough … too small, like I was … you have to also have. Bernadette had to put her knee under my bottom, and put her arm around my wait and lean me way out. So she's standing on one foot, leaning out on one arm, she's got her knee underneath my bottom, and arm around my waist, and so I'm just being dangled out over twenty feet, and it's just terrifying."

"Well, we started pre-safety belt era, you know," Hannah's mother, Janet French, tells us.

"[That was] before they had too many people crashing and burning on the net... So we had no safety belts when we started."

"I didn't love it the very first time…" says Bobzien. "I wasn't bit… And then I landed wrong, and so not being in safety lines, I … you know like Bernadette says you can't land standing, but I did. And immediately I buckled, and took a knee to the eye. So, that's my very first memory. Actually I did it twice in a row, and it just … it hurts.

"But you came back anyway," French says, laughing.

Bobzien chuckles, "Well … I was brought back."

French, however, was pretty instantly bit by the circus bug.

"Oh absolutely," she says, "it was just the best thing that could ever happen … to a mother with the two daughters, doing this fantastic flying through the air stuff."

Soon after their first flights on the trapeze, in August 1991, Hannah and Janet, plus Hannah's little sister Leah, were all flying regularly on Bernadette's trapeze.

"We drove straight to trapeze [every day after school] and had practice," Bobzien remembers.

"I couldn't wait to pick 'em up from school and get there," says French.

A Family Affair

The more they flew, the more they loved it. Throughout the 90s the French family performed in the High Flyers at every opportunity. Eventually, in the late 90s and early 2000s, French, Bobzien, Leah French, and Pace started choreographing and producing circus shows together. These shows not only included trapeze acts, but featured Aerial Silks, and hand-to-hand balancing, a form of acrobatics where performers balance their bodies on each other in interesting and gravity-defying ways. The newest official term for this is acro-yoga.

"Well the main thing we choreographed at first was a three person… actually it was a two-person hand balancing act with Leah, my youngest, and I… but then it became a three-person, soon, and that was… I just loved every minute of it. Then it became a four person hand-balance when Hannah's boyfriend, now husband, Clint, joined us…"

Clint Bobzien and Hannah, now married, met in high school, and Clint admits that it was meeting – and wanting to impress - Hannah that led him to try the circus arts.

"She was the major influence for me..." he says. "I went out for the diving team because I had a crush on her and I really wanted to meet her. So we dove and I was terrible and she was really great at that point, and she took pity on me and we started dating. One of the pre-requisites was to try the flying trapeze."

"You had to do that to be able to date her?" I ask.

"Well, she didn't say it out loud but I knew that it was one of the challenges I would have to face."

The French family, Pace and Clint Bobzien continued to do their circus shows, usually in downtown venues, at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center, and at the Buskirk Chumley Theater, while Hannah and Clint attended college at IU. After college, the couple toured together for five years with various circus companies, performing a variety of acts.

Taking The Show On The Road

Around the same time, French and Pace also went out on the road with different circus companies, often together, as high-flying trapeze artists.

"And how long distances would you be traveling on those nights when you would pack up and go to the next town?"

"Well it depends. Sometimes 67, sometimes 2 or 300 or more," Pace estimates.

"Miles you're talking about?" French asks.

"Miles, yeah."

French continues "Because usually the tour would be a couple hours to the next city, then the next biggest city, and the next biggest city. So you'd at least travel, maybe two or threes hours, and you could sleep a little bit, then get up the next day and help out."

Not all circuses functioned the same way, though.

"...the Royal Haniford would usually stay for a week at each engagement…" Pace says. "So it wasn't as bad as these circuses that have one-day stands."

"Then again you perform a lot more when you're stuck…" Bobzien interjects.

Bobzien agrees that stationary shows can be less labor intensive because performers aren't required to set up or tear down as often. However, she remembers that producers wold take advantage of this fact by adding extra shows to the schedule. Extra performances would take their toll on her body, but Bobzien had her ways of staying as healthy and able as possible.

"I would just try to find a restaurant that had good salmon. Like really good protein with good fatty acids. You know, good food would help a lot."

And when the aches and pains, and often superficial injuries came…

"So they call ibuprofen "Candy" in the circus world," Bobzien says. "So we used that an awful lot when you know we're doing it for weeks and multiple shows. Of course that's not ideal. But that's how you get through shows. And then you just try to rest…"

Wardrobe Malfunction

Eating ibuprofen like candy was one way to ensure that 'the show would go on'. Pace recalls living by that mandate, even at the risk of personal embarrassment-

"One time, there was another family, another year. Janet flew with the flying Lunas, and I flew with the Flying Lunas," Pace recalls.

"The Lunas are all very little people. Francis Luna barely came up to my shoulder. I'm 5'5", she must be like 4'8" or something. So they put this costume on me, and said 'Okay that fits.'"

"But not really," Bobzien adds.

"But you're standing there with your arms down and it's fine," Pace says. "So, in the circus act I swing out, holding my arms up in the air … and my boobs come out over the top of the costume!

"And I swung out and came back to the pedestal, pulled [my top] up, and saluted to the audience.

"And then one of the tricks I did was a birdy birdy, which is where you stick your chest way out, so my boobs way popped out, and you do the trick, come back to the board, pull it up, wave to the audience. So I think I did three tricks… then I did the passing leaps… and I probably did my swinging bar balance, then penny drop to the net. And … okay.. that happened to be a Shriners show… that we were doing. The Royal Haniford was doing it for the Shriners. And sometimes they would have a couple of people standing by the net to make sure nobody falls out of the net. The next day, the net was just ringed with people to make sure that nobody fell out of the net."

"They said I didn't have to go on with the show," Bernadette says, alluding to a conversation she had with the Lunas after the show. "I thought the show was supposed to go on!"

In 2009, Hannah and Clint got married at the Buskirk Chumley Theater. The couple, along with Pace and French choreographed an entire circus show for the wedding reception, complete with a wedding themed act between the bride and groom. It was a whole new spin on the traditional "first dance as a married couple."

"Hannah and Clint for their wedding… Bernadette made a cake platform that looked like a wedding cake…" Janet explains.

"Eight foot in diameter," Pace interjects.

"Okay, yeah, big eight foot diameter white with a little skirt," French clarifies.

"A stage," Bobzien says.

"Stage, it was a little stage," Frnech admits.

"...And so they were the bride and the groom on top of the cake doing their hand balance. And their wedding was at the Buskirk Chumley… and so we did a whole circus program for the reception. And that was the finale, them on top of the cake. It was just phenomenal. It was wonderful. My sister at the end of the performance stood up and said "This is the best wedding I've ever been [to] in my whole life!"

Bringing The Show Back Home

The circus was at the center of the life Hannah and Clint embarked on together as a couple. A year and a half ago, they opened Stage Flight Circus Arts, a circus arts school that offers classes in a variety of circus arts including aerial arts, tumbling, and acrobatics.

"What has the family you've built in the circus meant to you?" I ask.

"It has certainly helped me figure out what I want to do with my adult life, " Hannah Bobzien replies. "I think it gave me an out to just taking a job, like … whether I put it on myself or society put it on me… that you should just take a job and settle down and you know work 40 hours a week. It gave me an option out of that. And I'd say that my husband gave me the courage to take that option, out of that. And of course, without Bernadette and my mom's … I'm gonna cry… Like that's all I can say."

No longer touring with the circus, Pace and French have continued to nurture up-and-coming circus performers from their home base. Pace hosts regular flying hours to accommodate anyone who want to give her backyard trapeze a try. For many years French and Pace would set up the trapeze on the lawn at St. Charles Catholic School, where French teaches P.E.

"Yeah for years I would take the trapeze there and do workshops with middle-schoolers," French says. "Out there on the property, St. Charles property. That was fun. And then they changed things, and insurance became an issue, so we had to stop doing that.

But … when I see kids now, older kids in college, they come back and they say … that's the main thing they remember about St. Charles is that they got to fly on the trapeze, and do a show."

"I just think it's the greatest thing that ever happened to me," French says.

"It is!" says Pace. "It's like a secret life.. I mean, you're going off to the grocery store, and nobody knows that you can do ... "

"Yes they do!" French interrupts, "They stop you at the grocery store and say "Aren't you that lady [that has a trapeze in her backyard]?"

"Plus you're wearing tights and you have chalk all over you," Bobzien says.

"Yeah … yeah…" Pace admits, "But there will be people who come up who are 30 years old and they say, 'I came to your yard when I was a kid and flew on the trapeze.' And I won't know who they are…because, you know, they were 10 when they came to my yard."

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