When Ted McRae was growing up near the corner of Lafayette Street and Ashburton Avenue, he was a big fan of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" and liked to leave the hot city sidewalks for hikes through nearby woods and brush.
McRae's expeditions -- driven by the search for toads and snakes -- took him through graveyards, across the rushing waters of the Gwynns Falls to his cousin Cedric Walker's house on Deniston Street near Edmondson Avenue.
Years later, the 42-year-old McRae's love of nature was all the resume he needed for Walker to sign him up as a lion tamer in the UniverSoul Circus, which parades around Mondawmin Mall at 6 p.m. today and opens tomorrow for a 10-day engagement on the parking lot of the West Baltimore shopping center.
"Hitting those beautiful woods was like entering another world," said McRae as he unloaded cages of lions yesterday morning. "That's how it started for me."
Imparting that sense of simple adventure and fun is one of the objectives of UniverSoul, the nation's only black-owned circus, launched with virtually all black talent in 1994 by Cedric Walker, a former music and theatrical promoter who graduated from Edmondson High School in 1970.
Walker founded the circus with Calvin Dupree Jr., a one-time disc jockey who serves as ringmaster.
Where huge productions such as Ringling Brothers pack hockey arenas holding more than 10,000 people, UniverSoul is putting up its 2,100-seat big top in 16 inner-city neighborhoods across the country this year.
Given a choice between a "globe of death" motorcycle act or a high-wire ballet, Walker will take the aerial act every time for his rocking, yet intimate, one-ring show.
"Our circus is an expression of African-American culture, giving the audience a different perspective on circus arts, timeless arts evolved from God-given resources," said Walker. "When we were doing our research, the European shows really caught our eye, acts that have to be more closely observed than pomp and fanfare. I'm a salesman but I don't want to let go of the spirit that made me walk on pipes across rushing water when Ted and I were kids."
It was when Walker had to dismiss a lion tamer from Las Vegas weeks before his first circus opened in 1994 that memories of a cousin who kept boa constrictors for pets flooded back to him.
McRae was driving a forklift for a paint company in Hunt Valley when the call came.
"Being called out of the blue and asked to get in cages with lions and tigers was as fantastic as someone inviting you for a ride on the space shuttle," said McRae, who made a wrong move his first time in the cage and has a two-inch tiger bite scar on his collarbone to show for it. "But knowing my cousin, I didn't doubt him."
Female lion tamer
After four years in cages with wild animals, McRae was asked to take a job behind the scenes this year when UniverSoul hired Monique Angeon, a French woman billed as the world's only black female lion tamer.
Although he's itching to get back in the ring, McRae contents himself knowing that his work -- part of an entourage of 45 performers and 90 supporters, many of them residents of the neighborhoods where the tent goes up -- helps the show go on.
He and his wife, Renee, follow the circus caravan in their trailer and educate their three sons on the road. As the big top went up yesterday morning, one of his boys criss-crossed the parking lot on a unicycle.
"I don't think Ricky [Cedric] will be able to stop himself from doing something else once this show is up and running itself, but one of the things he believes is that a circus lives forever if you feed and water it," said McRae. "This show isn't running itself yet. The hook is set but the fish isn't in the boat. When it is, Ricky Walker will go on to something else and maybe our boys will be running the circus."
In the history of the American circus, at least three have been aimed at blacks, according to the Circus World Museum of Wisconsin. Two performed the last time the century was about to turn and another had a short run in California in the 1960s.
As he watered the lions yesterday, McRae tried to sum up what a black circus -- made up of people of color from around the world -- means to an African-American audience.
Outside of a church, how many shows have a moment where the audience is urged to take a good look around to savor, as Dupree urges, the beauty of families enjoying themselves together.
"For the younger kids, it's a big party. They see somebody who looks like they do doing really weird stuff," said McRae. "I've seen old folks cry at this circus, grandmothers who've lived through things that weren't so pretty, women like Rosa Parks, come up to us afterward in Detroit and cried out of pride. A woman from South Africa dropped her cane to hold my hand and said in an accent just like Desmond Tutu: 'You guys are next to Christ.'
"I didn't know what to do when she said that," remembered McRae. "But making people feel that way is what it's all about."
Pub Date: 6/18/98