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San Diego At Large

Hair-Raising Circus Act Keeps Mother, Daughters Hanging On

July 11, 1990|ANTHONY PERRY

First, the Biggest (and Dumbest) Question: Does it hurt?

Answer: Of course it hurts! It's agony. The trick is not letting the pain show on your face.

Several times a day, Marguerite Michelle, 36, hangs by her hair and smiles cheerfully while doing feats of acrobatics and juggling rings, plates and flaming clubs.

She likes it so much she has taught the art to her daughters, Michelle Ayala, 20, and Andrea, 17. Strong scalp runs in the family.

Mother and daughters twist and twirl 35 feet in the air, sans net, as stars of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which opened a six-day run last night at the San Diego Sports Arena.

"If you can stand the pain, it's a beautiful, graceful act," she said.

When hair-hanging was introduced in 1916, the Barnum & Bailey tub-thumpers ballyhooed it as an ancient Oriental art that no root-respecting Occidental would attempt. Piffle.

Michelle learned the secrets from her mother and grandparents, performers in a family-run circus in Mexico. She started at age 11.

She's been hair-hanging ever since, except for a spell after a 1982 fall in Atlanta. There's nothing like a cracked head and weeklong coma to slow down your career.

She fell when her hair broke loose from the hook.

"One of my knots broke," she said. "That's supposed to be 99% safe. The other 1% happened to me."

Now Michelle's back and chipper; her hair is waist-length. She and I talked by phone. I asked for hair-care tips.

She recommended vegetables, jogging and plenty of liquids for strong, shiny hair. She avoids dyes and permanents but sees nothing wrong with shampoo.

She speaks with authority:

"Hair is my livelihood."

Monkeying Around on Motorcycles

There's always a local angle.

"The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey," just published by Simon & Schuster, is a 352-page attempt to debunk the myth of the gorilla-loving American who fought poachers in deepest Africa.

It's the antithesis of the movie "Gorillas in the Mist," in which Fossey was lionized by Sigourney Weaver.

The book, written by former Esquire editor Harold T.P. Hayes, is not a lot of laughs.

One of the few light moments comes when a young volunteer encourages Fossey to hustle corporate support in exchange for endorsements:

"I said, 'Dian, this is nuts, man. You call up Yamaha and Honda, and you get them a deal that says you'll publicize their equipment, and they'll give them (motorcycles) to you free. And you can do five days' work in four hours!

"You don't have to walk a mile and a half an hour up a vertical hillside. You sit on a motorcycle and putt-putt-putt, you're there. That will scare the hell out of the poachers."'

The free market-free spirit fellow is identified as Michael Burkhart, a surfer and anthropology student from San Diego State University.

Burkhart remembers Fossey as a "tough-talking, chain-smoking s.o.b." She assigned him to count gorilla droppings.

El Cortez Coming Down?

Is the El Cortez Hotel, a San Diego landmark for 65 years, headed for demolition by its new Japanese owners?

Mark Grosvenor, chief executive of San Diego's Grosvenor Industries, sent a letter Tuesday to the City Council warning that the chairman of Minami Group of Tokyo has notified him that the conglomerate "is considering demolition of the hotel."

Grosvenor Industries sold the vacant hotel to Minami a year ago, with the understanding that it would be restored to its previous glory.

Grosvenor said he is "adamantly opposed" to demolition and will quit as the project developer if Minami persists.

For decades, the El Cortez was the spot for proms, grad nights and fancy occasions.

If Minami seeks demolition, expect a political fight. A large political fight.

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