One of them has a degree in psychology; another was a French-speaking tour guideat the United Nations. The rest are basically a bunch of clowns.
Together, they comprise the-little-circus-that could--better known as the L. A. Circus. A one-ring, one-elephant, no-tent affair that is making a stab at becoming for Los Angeles what the highly regarded Big Apple Circus is for New York. Or what Canada's Cirque du Soleil is for Santa Monica.
It hasn't been trapezey.
"Last year, we only did about eight performances," said veteran clown Dick Monday, who founded LAC with 20-year trapeze artist Wini McKey and former Ringling Brothers marketing specialist Doug Lyon. "This year in our spring season, we will be doing about 28 performances between April 1 and July 1, and the second half of our season we have already booked 18 days. We're hoping to get 30. Our dream, of course, is to have a tent some day."
In the meantime, LAC--a troupe of circus veterans who sometimes started out with very different ambitions--sets up shop at schools, hospitals, parks and shopping centers. This Sunday, the circus, which is largely funded by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, will sprinkle its own portable sawdust (really) into the Fashion Square parking lot in Sherman Oaks--at the south end near Woodman Avenue--for four shows at 11 a.m. and 1, 3, and 5 p.m. in a benefit for San Fernando Valley schools. Admission: $5.
The Amazing Vita Acrobats--four Canoga Park brothers and a cousin who are among the nation's top contenders for the 1996 Olympics acrobatics team (a new category)--will be there, working their tumbling miracles. Tai, the elephant, will be there. So will table juggler Chester Cable, aerialist Kathleen Kaufman and a live circus band under the baton of Bill Payne.
And yes, Matthew Love, the clown with the master of arts degree in psychology from UCLA, will be there--walking on stilts, juggling, tumbling, playing a 17-piece one-man band and doing what clowns do. So will Denise Payne, wife of Bill and one of three African-American women to graduate from Ringling Brothers Clown College in Florida--\o7 and \f7 a former U. N. French-speaking tour guide.
OK, Matthew Love, just exactly how does one go from psych to cirque?
"Well, it's a circus in education today," he said dryly at an LAC rehearsal at the Olive Recreation Center. "I started out juggling when I was 14 and my basketball coach said juggling would help me with basketball. I got so good at juggling, basketball was no longer interesting. I earned my way through college by juggling. After I finished my degree, I did private parties, commercials and bit parts. In the end, I found I could make as much money juggling, and it was more fun."
Payne is a born-again clown. She graduated from Clown College in 1976, worked for Ringling Brothers for two seasons, then quit to join the U. N. After three years, she became a clown again.
"It was definitely fascinating," she said, caught during a break in juggling practice at the rehearsal. "But I missed performing. I started getting into theater, but it wasn't the same. There's something unwritten, I guess, about the circus and being a clown that I missed."
She eventually did film work, then returned to Los Angeles as a full-time clown for company parties and the Venice Boardwalk before Monday asked her to join LAC two years ago.
"People think it's really so strange for a lady, especially a black lady, to be a clown," Payne said. "But it's not really, when you stop to think about it. Look at all the comedic actresses. There's Imogene Coca, who is still performing. She's my hero! Lucille Ball performed all the way to the end."
Kids are sometimes shocked to find a woman underneath the greasepaint, even though Payne's clown \o7 is \f7 a woman--based on one of her aunts who "don't take nothin' from nobody."
"Black kids, especially, aren't used to seeing black clowns," she said. "And even though I'm wearing a dress, people most of the time still think I'm a guy! One time, some little black kids came up to me, and I'm shaking their hands, then one of them asked me a question, and my voice is a lady's voice. This little girl's eyes just got real big, and she said, 'You're a girl clown!' and her face just lit up. And my heart just went \o7 kaboom--\f7 it just melted, because she identified. And I thought, yes! yes!--you can do it too!"
That anecdote points up the goal that is at the heart of L.A. Circus, aside from eventually becoming self-supporting, "to be a multinational-type circus representing all the culture in Los Angeles: African-American, Hispanic, white, Japanese, Korean, Chinese--everybody," as co-founder Lyon puts it.