We are deep in the second half of the Universal Big Top Circus show, and Casual Cal, the ringmaster, is pulling men and women out of the audience, lining them up facing each other before he slips out of the ring.
The Soul Train theme booms from the monster sound system. Half the audience of 2,500 starts having flashbacks of platform shoes and the Ohio Players, break dancers spinning on their shoulders, Bobby Brown's new jack swing. You half expect Don Cornelius to show up and he does!
Cal, wearing D.C.'s patented smoked shades and the type of huge Afro that 20 years ago sent you running to the drug store for a Blow-out kit, glides back into the ring. Kool and the Gang's "Funky Stuff" starts up. The dancing begins.
This is what it's like at America's only black-owned circus. Of the 20 to 25 circuses that travel the country, only Universal builds its show around themes and touchstones of black American life. The circus knows its audience.
"We're an expression of a culture through the circus tradition." That's how Cedric Walker, the 43-year-old Baltimorean who left home a generation ago to attend the Tuskegee Institute and later became an impresario and producer, describes his circus. "We didn't want to be just black people in circus acts. We wanted to touch the spiritual."
The Daniel in the Lion's Den act opens with a prayer. The ringmaster's pledge for the children includes a promise that they always love their families. Danise Payne's poignant pantomime evokes memories of mothers and aunts scrubbing floors, of Moms Mabley's old comedy routines. It stresses overcoming your fears. There's a message in the circus.
And there's music, none of it being your typical circus fanfares. Universal's soundtrack opens with James Brown's "Sex Machine" and closes with McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." In between there is Quad City DJs' "C'mon N' Ride It (The Train)," the Jackson Five's "A-B-C," and themes from "The Jeffersons" and "Sanford and Son." Pop culture references are everywhere.
"I see it first of all as entertainment, but I will qualify that by saying it is clean, family entertainment, which is rare. You can't turn on the TV and get it," says Ted McRae, who portrays Daniel and Hannibal. "People aren't going to buy a ticket to be educated. They will buy a ticket to be entertained."
Universal is a rarity. In the 200-plus years of the American circus, at least three have been aimed at blacks, says Fred Dahlinger, library and research center director at Circus World Museum. Two were in the 1880s and 1890s, with the most successful of the two working out of Medford, Wis. Another black circus had a brief life in California in the 1960s.
Though Universal usually fills its tent, the organization is still building an audience and trying to break even. The 10-day run in Baltimore will cost about $700,000. Walker says he is taking a measured approach. The first year, Universal played only in its hometown, Atlanta. Last year, Universal added Detroit to its list. This year's tour adds Chicago, Baltimore and Los Angeles.
The show combines the old and the new. The setting is intimate, one ring under one tent, the way circuses were 100 years ago. Sitting at ringside means being able to reach out and slap five with the performers; it means leaning back in your seat because the pirouetting elephants seem a bit too close.
The Ayak Brothers are sufficiently death-defying, working the trapeze without a net. The chimp on horseback is corny enough capture any child's imagination. Princess Nayakata, a contortionist from Spain, is so amazing that Pandora Gallop, 24, says she would not have believed it had she not seen it herself. The Princess received a standing ovation.
"There's a typical mix of aerial and ground acts, but there's a lot that one would not see in a conventional or tent circus," says Dahlinger.
Like the entire audience, men, women and children, doing the sing-song hand clap game: "Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black " That interlude struck deep with John Carrington, 46.
"I like the way our culture is very much a part of the circus here, the little things like 'Miss Mary Mack.' I'd almost forgotten it," he says. "This circus is one of those things that helps us become a better people because we get to laugh with ourselves, not at ourselves."
The circus, now in its third year, came about after years of brainstorming. Walker, who grew up on the west side -- Edmondson Avenue and Deniston Street to be exact -- had the entrepreneur's touch as a child. He shined shoes all over town for $6 a day, stowed away on his uncle's a-rab wagon to see different neighborhoods. He traveled with the Commodores in the 1970s.
During the 1980s he produced successful plays geared toward the black urban market. He kept looking for something more, a production combining the turn-of-the-century traveling shows with the high-tech glitz and wizardry of a rock-and-roll concert.
He spent months researching, turning up obscure names of black performers, watching videos of old television variety shows, sifting through ideas like a miner searching for a golden nugget. Nothing grabbed his interest. About four years ago, he and Calvin "Casual Cal" Dupree locked themselves in an Oakland, Calif., hotel room. They rattled off concepts.
"When I said animal acts, he said, 'It sounds like we need a circus,' " says Walker in a telephone interview. "I hit the ceiling. I said, 'That's it!' "
It seemed an off-the-wall idea. A black circus?
"It was so far from what blacks would get into," says Tony Starling, an initial skeptic now on Universal's staff. "It's always something that we looked upon as white entertainment."
Walker pressed on. He visited Ringling Bros., found a consultant in Robert Houston, a historian with a deep interest in the lives of blacks in the circus. Investors were wary. La-Van Hawkins, the Baltimore fast-food king, was the first to sign on, writing a check for $75,000.
"Everybody else looked at us and said, 'Man, you're crazy. You can't do a circus,' " says Walker.
His group searched for black performers. Some were in retirement. One aerialist had become a gym instructor; another was managing a health food store. Some were in Europe. By 1994, he had a circus, but had lost his animal trainer. He called his cousin.
At the time Ted McRae, 40, was driving a forklift for the Sherman-Williams paint company in Hunt Valley. He had never been in a cage with tigers, but he loved animals.
"He called me in the middle of the night and asked me if if could do it," says McRae. "I turned to my wife and said, 'He wants me to get in a cage with lions and tigers.' She said, 'It sounds good. Tell him, 'Yeah.' " He caught a flight to Sarasota, Fla.
"The night before I was so nervous. The anticipation was so great I couldn't sleep. I couldn't sit still. I couldn't eat. I was sick to my stomach," he says. "I was a nervous wreck. I said, 'What have I gotten myself into?' "
Kay Rosaire, a fifth-generation circus animal trainer, showed him the ropes during three weeks of training. He spent a week just hanging around the cage. A tiger bit him his first day inside.
"I did the trick wrong," he says. "Basically, I put my shoulder in the cat's mouth."
Now his act begins the show's second half. He is Daniel in the lion's den, commanding six tigers. Later, he becomes Hannibal, the brilliant Carthaginian general who took his elephants and army over the Alps and nearly conquered ancient Rome.
The King Charles Troupe of 10 unicyclists takes the ring between McRae's bookends of history. Nearly 30 years ago, this Harlem Globetrotters-on-wheels act became the first all-black act Ringling Brothers.
The circus runs for nearly three hours with one 15-minute break. The show ends on a high note, leaving the audience satisfied that it has seen something different, something with its history in mind.
"This is what our black kids need," says Marceline Dates, 34, whose three sons were bundles of energy as the lights went up. "They need to see something positive."
The big show
What: The Universal Big Top Circus
Where: The old Eastern High School parking lot, Ellerslie Avenue and 33rd Street, across from Memorial Stadium
When: Daily through Sunday, Oct. 20. Monday through Friday: ** 10: 30 a.m. ($8) and 7: 30 p.m. ($10, $13.50, $17.50); Saturday: Noon, 4: 30 p.m. and 8 p.m. ($15, $18, $25); Sunday: Noon ($13.50), 3: 30 p.m. and 6: 30 p.m. ($15, $18, $25)
Call: Tickets are available at the box office, (410) 662-1804, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and from TicketMaster, (410) 481-SEAT
Pub Date: 10/14/96