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Circus days spent in the outback

Sonny King's artworks re-create his 'magical' youth.

July 05, 2007|Jeannie McDowell | Special to The Times

AS a boy, Sonny King didn't have to run away to the circus. It came to him.

King's father -- born out of wedlock and given away to a circus family at age 7 -- was a lion trainer and acrobat who created Silver's Circus & Zoo, a renowned traveling show in Australia in the 1940s. His mother was a second-generation circus equestrian who later divorced his father and settled in Sydney. From the time King was 10, his father would pluck him out of boarding school for months to travel across the Australian outback with the circus.

King learned how to pitch a big-top tent and ride a horse standing up. A quirky band of acrobats, trapeze artists, magicians, fire-breathers, contortionists, clowns and lion trainers became a surrogate family, much as it had been to his father.

"It was all very magical," recalls King, 67. "I loved watching these people perform. I would squeeze in a corner between the seats and the curtain at the back of the tent. It wasn't until years later that I realized it was dangerous for my father to spend time in the lion's cage. But it was my life, and to me it was normal."

But King didn't grow up and follow in his father's footsteps. He became an art director, moved to Los Angeles and is happily ensconced in Beverly Hills married to screenwriter Katherine Reback ("Fools Rush In"). Still, you can take the boy out of the circus but you can't take the circus out of the boy. More than 50 years later, King has found expression for his vivid childhood memories through a collection of dioramas on exhibit through Oct. 7 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. Eleven three-dimensional scenes re-create the performances and life behind the scenes in "The Original Silver's Circus & Zoo: Works by Sonny King."

With painstaking attention to detail, King looks to open a door on life in a traveling circus. "Mervyn King and His Performing Lions" shows his father in the main ring with four cats, including one jumping through a ring of fire. "Dental Act" shows Johnny Zelinsky -- whom circus impresario Mervyn King discovered chopping trees in a forest in North Queensland and hired on the spot -- gripping a trapeze wire in his teeth as an aerial acrobat hangs from it. King also delves into life behind the scenes -- the clowns applying their makeup before a performance and circus workers huddled around a small fire at the back of a tent while the show goes on inside.

"I fell in love with Sonny King's work," says Craft and Folk Art Museum Director Maryna Hrushetska. "It's the essence of folk art and craft mixed together. The more time you spend with the pieces, the more you can imagine what was going on in that moment he captured so artfully. They draw you into this vibrant, vivid place and time."

Throughout his adult life, King has regaled friends with stories about his father and growing up in Silver's circus, which traversed the outback from 1946 until 1953. Two years ago he decided to interpret his memories through three-dimensional dioramas, which are about 2 feet wide and 20 inches tall. Working out of a small studio in his apartment, he crafted each performer, animal, scene and object from scratch, using polymer clay and LED lighting. Every person in his audiences has a distinctly individual facial expression.

"The most fun I had was doing the audience," King says. "In those days, there was no television. People came to the circus dressed in suits and ties and were incredibly excited. Nothing like that goes on today."

The dioramas are a labor of love, as well as a homage to King's father, whose resilience and imagination allowed him to overcome early childhood abandonment and lead a full and happy life. (Mervyn King remarried a contortionist in his circus and died in 2003 at age 95.)

King's dioramas are also a testament to the enduring power of childhood memory, both good and bad. And from a historical perspective, they reflect the importance of the traveling circus 60 years ago as the only form of entertainment for people living in remote areas of the outback. "They came to see this show with bated breath, and you can feel their excitement in scenes," Hrushetska says. "Think of what a kid felt having a front-row seat."


`The Original Silver's Circus & Zoo'

The Art of Sonny King

Where: Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 7

Price: $5; $3, students and seniors; free, children younger than 12; free, first Wednesday of the month

Info: (323) 937-4230,

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