The circus. Three rings of total wonder. Tigers jumping through hoops, trapeze artists flying through the air, dozens of clowns scampering about, elephants on parade, lavish costumes, a blaring brass band, cannons hurling daredevils toward a distant net. And, drawing the multitude's attention from one marvel to another, that silver-tongued champion of hyperbole, the ringmaster.
Then, there's the Pickle Family Circus.
One ring. A few clowns, jugglers and acrobats. A woman on the trapeze. A five-piece jazz band. No animals, no ringmaster. As artistic director and co-founder Larry Pisoni sums it up, "We're somewhat lacking in the sequins department."
Far from apologizing for the shortcomings of his company, Pisoni stresses the advantages of life under the little top.
"In a one-ring circus, there is no competing for attention. I think most circus performers would prefer our format. And, of course, for the audience it's a lot easier to concentrate." The Pickles make their latest visit to Southern California today and Sunday at noon and 3 p.m. on the Santa Monica Pier.
One-time members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Pisoni and Peggy Snider formed the Pickle Family Circus in 1974. (The name was chosen on the spur of the moment, after Pisoni and Snider had passed a TV juggling audition. "They caught us off guard. They wanted to know what we called ourselves," he recalls.)
Now a touring company of 20, the Pickles have performed all over the West with one basic goal in mind, says Pisoni: "to get back to the idea that one ring is best." The tradition, he points out, goes back to England at the time of the American Revolution when various acts from some of the better country fairs would join together before an audience gathered in the round. A ring was placed to guide the horses supporting trick riders.
After the American Civil War, entrepreneurs added more and more rings, and, says Pisoni, more and more hype.
"We want people to understand what they're seeing," he stresses. "The aesthetic is something to be considered. The audience should share in the beauty of human accomplishment."
Despite such heady philosophizing, Pisoni and company remain ever mindful of their audience's expectations. "They want to see animals, so we dress in animal costumes. But they're fantasy animals." This year, 10 members of the troup will dance the Charleston in gorilla suits.
Pisoni is not a fan of live animal acts in circuses: "In the past, they were meant to show people what these animals looked like. Now, everyone knows. I don't understand what they prove. It's humiliating to the animals sometimes."
One tradition kept more or less intact is the clown. Since the beginning, Pisoni has been head clown Lorenzo Pickle. There will be, he says, no shortage of red noses or baggy pants--or the human side of clowns. No garish costumes among the Pickles.
"We are very human," Pisoni notes, "even though we may be very skillful. This is simply what we do for a living. Our lives aren't all that different, except that we're on the road a lot (from April through October).
"All the basic circus techniques are built around skills we all use on a daily basis: coordination, manipulation of objects, quick responses. Look at walking, for instance. That's a pretty sophisticated movement."