Feel Like Clowning Around? Step Right Up to Rob Mermin's Big Top Camp, Circus Smirkus

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Rob Mermin was 12 the first time he ran away to join the circus. He made it only a few blocks before slinking back to his home in North Haven, Conn. But seven years later, with a few clown tricks up his sleeve, Mermin traveled all the way to Europe determined to realize his dream. A circus director in Wales gave him a chance. "I followed a little Spanish midget and a big burly German, and I fell off a camel my first night," recalls Mermin, 39. But that didn't cool his ambition. When he returned to college in the U.S. at the end of the summer, Mermin warned his mother that he would eventually be going back to the circus world. "Circus smirkus," she said. "Go get yourself a real job...something to fall back on."

True to his word, Mermin returned to Europe in his junior year and studied with master mime Marcel Marceau—for which Lake Forest College gave him credit. Once Mermin had graduated, with a degree in drama, he spent 13 years working in European circuses. His mother, a teacher, and his father, a former director of housing and redevelopment in New Haven, finally "resigned themselves to the fact that I might not grow up," he says. They even helped out financially when he decided to run his own show. "I'd worked all the big shows as a performer, so that wasn't a goal for me anymore," says Mermin. "They lacked the spirit that we could get in a little country circus."

Over the years Mermin had never forgotten his mother's warning. Circus smirkus. It had a ring. And now so does he—laid out under a yellow, blue and red big top at his converted dairy farm in Greensboro, Vt. Every July some 20 children, ages 10 to 17, run away—with their parents' permission—to Mermin's Circus Smirkus camp. Two weeks later they are ready to pack up the tent and take their newfound skills as jugglers, unicyclists, tightrope walkers and clowns on a 19-day tour of the state. Audiences who pay their $5 admission expecting amateur night are always amazed by the professionalism of Mermin's tenderfoot troupe.

That polish is applied through rigorous training. The Circus Smirkus day begins at 8:30 each morning with acrobatic instruction by Irina Gold, a former champion gymnast from Russia. Later come lessons in tightrope walking, trapeze artistry, plate spinning and pratfalls. Instructors are all circus professionals, and safety is stressed. "Bruises are part of this business," says Mermin, "broken bones are not." At the end of the day, instead of toasting marshmallows over a campfire, the weary campers watch Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies to sharpen their sense of comic timing.

The camp, now in its third season, is one of the few of its kind and quickly gaining a reputation. This year some 60 kids auditioned for the available spots. Though many of the applicants already had basic clowning or acrobatic skills, Mermin mainly looks for team spirit. "We're not out to make stars of these kids," he says. "We don't take the best of them and give them all the acts. We try to give the feeling that we are working together here." (He also offers scholarships to campers who cannot pay the $800 tuition.)

When he settled in Vermont in 1984, Mermin started a day camp and taught local kids juggling and mime while he laid the groundwork for Circus Smirkus. It opened in 1987, with campers and instructors bedded down in the rambling farm buildings and Mermin in a trailer in the backyard. (Come winter, Mermin lives in the house with his dog, Rufus, when he's not traveling around to the state's schools as an artist-in-residence.)

By now some campers are repeaters. Says Addie MacDonald, an 11-year-old from East Montpelier, "You come here one year and you really want to come back." Adds Molly Pelley, 12, of West Newbury, Mass., "It's my life, my dream, and hopefully my career." In another era, Pelley might have run away to realize that age-old fantasy. But, says Mermin, "I don't want kids to have to run away to the circus anymore. I prefer to say that when they come to this camp, they're running toward the circus."

—Andrea Chambers, Toby Kahn in Greensboro

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