SOUL MAN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gravity-defying trapeze artists. Animals performing tricks at a trainer's command. A zany, obnoxious clown and a ringmaster orchestrating the show with powerful orations. That's the circus Baltimore native Cedric Walker relished when his mother took him to the big top as a child.

The UniverSoul Circus is his remix.

The creator of the 11-year-old traveling show, which begins a six-day run at Security Square Mall tonight, includes all the mainstays that circus enthusiasts have come to love.

But when was the last time you got plucked out of the audience for a Soul Train dance line at center stage? Or got caught up in a rhythmic chant with the ringmaster while head-bopping to bass-thumping beats of Usher, Destiny's Child or Funkadelic?

"As I worked on this circus," he said, "one of the aspirations was that we were always creative and always giving the audience something new and different," said Walker, 52.

Those who have been to UniverSoul won't be surprised that Walker comes from a musical background: He is a former production manager for the Commodores, whose members were his classmates at Tuskegee University in Alabama, and he produced the Fresh Fest concert tour in the 1980s, hip-hop's first major money-making event.

He founded UniverSoul, the nation's only African-American owned and operated circus, in 1994, seeking a unique showcase for black talent.

But the circus that has become popular for its audience participation and hip-hop flavor is underrated for its traditional acts.

They consist of renowned troupes from 11 countries that stage 17 acts: a Gabonese high-wire team that performs breathtaking stunts on the tightrope, walking across as a four-man pyramid and on stilts; two performers from Colombia and the Dominican Republic who run and jump (sometimes blindfolded) along a rotating Ferris wheel-like contraption; and the Shanghai Swingers, a trapeze act from Taiwan who employ aerial stunts, including four pairs somersaulting and twisting and catching one another in midair.

The action is nonstop, buoyed by multicolored spotlights, pulsating, melodic music (accompanied by a violinist) and a public address announcer who bellows the most redundant question you'll hear during the two-hour show.

"Cannnnn youuuuu feeeeeel iiiiiiit?"

"This circus is unique because it encompasses everything," said UniverSoul ballerina and aerialist Nicole Mouton. "You have people from all over the world, different cultures, able to come together for the audience."

The action takes place under a navy-blue-and-yellow tent (capacity: 2,200), with seats close to the floor. The circus will perform 500 shows in 26 cities this year.

It was started by a visionary who as a sixth-grader sold frozen Kool-Aid for 5 cents in front of his home at Denison Street and Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore.

In fact, that served as an impetus for the one-of-a-kind circus.

"I bought a pack of Kool-Aid for a nickel, got some sugar, made some Kool-Aid that I froze in cups and sold for a nickel each. I sold 21 cups," said Walker, who graduated from Edmondson High School. "And I learned that if you create the product, you could sell it at your own terms and get first count on the money."

In college, he served as production manager for the Commodores, who in the 1970s became an opening act for the Jackson 5.

"I quit school to go on tour with them. I was in charge of their lights, their sound, putting up the stage, taking it down," said Walker. "We worked seven days a week; we toured Europe, Japan, we worked on ships going overseas. And this was before they made records."

From there, Walker ventured into tour management and booking, and worked with such R&B; artists as the O'Jays, Barry White and Cameo.

He turned to show promotion and promoted such tours as the Kool Jazz Festival.

He persuaded hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons to take the rapidly growing genre from skating rinks and clubs to arenas.

Walker also staged the successful theatrical production A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The concerts and productions earned the money to start UniverSoul.

"I believe what makes a person grow is the force that compels you to change," said Walker. "I was in show business, but I got the little cities because all of the big boys got the New York and Los Angeles [venues]. I would get Pine Bluff, Ark."

Once he decided to venture beyond promotions and management, Walker brought several business partners to a library to research other possible forms of entertainment.

He initially envisioned hip-hop musicals, a vaudeville revue or animal acts. Then he came across the first African-American traveling circus, founded in 1885 by Ephraim Williams in Milwaukee.

From there, the idea of UniverSoul was born.

Walker visited Black Expo, an event designed to promote African-American businesses, in Philadelphia a few weeks later and came across an African-American circus exhibit, staged by a vendor who shared a wealth of knowledge about African-Americans in the business.

From there he met one of the first African-American lion tamers, who introduced him to other circus performers and organized training for all of Walker's animal acts.

After spending much of 1993 on recruitment, training and production, Walker's first show, the Universal Big Top Circus, was staged in the parking lot of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Nov. 11, 1994.

It lost every penny.

But Walker continued to line up investors and sponsors, and the tour grew to 10 cities by 1997 and to 31 by 2000.

"I didn't really go out and say, 'I want to do a circus.' I said, 'I want to do something different,'" said Walker, who lives in Atlanta with his wife and son.

Along the way, he renamed the circus and found an array of performers, some with prior experience, some without.

Walker persuaded a cousin who owned three 14-foot boa constrictors to join the animal show. His clown, Onionhead, got his start in the business after his daughter didn't like the clown he rented for her birthday.

His ringmaster, Shuckey Duckey, enjoyed stints on HBO's Def Comedy Jam and BET's Comicview.

The Gabonese troupe came aboard after a tour with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus.

"At Ringling Brothers, all we did was a high-wire pyramid, standing on each other's shoulders," said Nino Mihindou. "But here, we've had a chance to grow as performers and expand our act."

Walker has traveled all over the world for talent, recruiting street performers, resort acts and other talent who are part of city community programs.

"Sometimes it gets dangerous," said Walker, "because sometimes I go to inner-city community programs around the world where ... I was praying every second."

But it's been worth it. What began as an idea in a library expanded to two touring companies covering as many as 57 cities a year. This year, however, Walker decided to return to the show's original format, one touring group covering major markets.

It continues to be a huge draw for patrons and performers alike; UniverSoul acts get caught up in the show's energy as much as the audience.

"We get top acts that come to us; they want the experience," said Walker. "They enjoy the audience, the rhythm. They enjoy the soul."

UniverSoul Circus

Where: Security Square Mall

When: Tonight through Sunday

Tickets: $10 to $26

Call: 800-316-7439

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