If Life Isn't a 3-Ring Circus in Peru, Ind., It's Only Because One Is Enough
The circus train doesn't stop in Peru, Ind. (pop. 15,000) anymore, but every year, for one magical week in midsummer, the Big Top is reborn on the banks of the Wabash. The town's Baptist preacher doubles as a ringmaster, an Episcopal priest plays a clown and the Methodist minister helps rig the aerial acts. But the real stars are the kids—187 of them this year—who live out their daydreams as performers. The closing-day parade is billed as the biggest in Indiana next to the Memorial Day blowout for the Indianapolis 500, and 3,000 unsung Hoosiers work behind the scenes to make the show a reality.
It all began nearly a century ago when Ben Wallace, who owned the local livery stable, bought a bankrupt circus and put it back on the road. By 1913 more than 1,000 circus people had settled in Peru and the town became a supplier of parade wagons and tent canvas. The great traveling shows that came to winter there died off one by one during the Depression, but the performers and their families stayed on. Emmett Kelly was a local boy. And Clyde Beatty's daughter and three grandchildren still live there.
Tom and Betty Hodgini are typical. They toured professionally for 27 years, mainly as bareback riders, before returning to Peru in 1956 to put their four kids through school and to operate a camera store. Tom, now 53, is a fourth-generation performer. (The family name is Hodges; an imaginative uncle had added the "ini" to make it more exotic.) Tom's mother had hung by her teeth from the flying trapeze. Betty, 52, is the daughter of a Muncie car salesman. She became infected with the circus on meeting Tom as a teenager.
Four years after the Hodginis retired from the circus, a group of local merchants suggested they train some kids for a minishow. "That first year was pretty hard," Betty recalls, with 20 not-very-confident children in her backyard. " 'Oh sure, you can do this stuff—you're a circus lady,' they'd say. Now it's so much easier, because they grow up seeing other kids—just plain kids—do all these wonderful things."
Starting from the sawdust up, the Hodginis and the rest of Peru built an extravaganza now proclaimed "The Greatest Amateur Show on Earth." Some 16,000 people jam a converted lumber warehouse to see the nine performances—most of them sellouts—presented during Circus Week. Since 1978 Peru has employed a fulltime circus trainer, and the show is awesomely professional in nearly every respect. Safety standards are rigorous, with nets and harnesses required for the dazzling array of high-wire and aerial acts. This year, as stifling heat scourged the Midwest, temperatures in the arena hit 106° and young fliers had to plunge their hands in cooling alcohol to keep sweaty palms from causing bad falls.
Though 50 young veterans of the show have gone on to careers in the circus, most regard the event as an end in itself. Since townspeople volunteer not only their time but virtually every guy wire, costume spangle and saxophone, production costs are kept to a minimum and the profits ($39,000 in 1980) go to college scholarships for graduating performers.
Still, the show's importance to the town cannot be measured in dollars alone. This year dental hygienist Tammy Marburger, who performed in Peru's first circus a generation ago, watched intently as her youngest daughter, 9-year-old Marcie, balanced on a pole 40 feet high. "I first saw a circus when I was about her age," Marburger recalled. "I was so thrilled I figured I'd run away and join one when I grew up. But I didn't have to, and neither will Marcie. We're lucky in Peru. The circus has come to us."
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