Circus is a loaded word. It makes some folks nostalgic as they reminisce about lovely ladies riding atop elephants, daring lion tamers tempting fate with the king of beasts and high-flying acrobats defying gravity.
For others, the word conjures dark images of animal abuse. In 2017, general public unease and the directed action of animal advocacy groups contributed to the end of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ 146-year-run.
Yet old ideas can become new again through artful re-imagination. Enter Kevin Venardos. The former Ringling Bros. ringmaster imagined a new form of circus, somewhere between Cirque de Soleil and a Broadway musical. With his larger-than-life personality and a whole lot of determination, he launched Venardos Circus in 2014. His next-generation spectacle challenges tradition while capturing the retro charm of the classic circus. It’s a revitalized concept for the modern audience.
The formula is fairly simple, really: keep the old-fashioned big top tent and traveling revue of talented performers, but ditch the animals. Make it intimately personal and classy, too. Venardos threw caution to the wind and—despite his mother’s insistence that he get a “real job”—he made good on his prediction that audiences around the country would show up.
“The Venardos Circus is a Broadway show inside a magic circus tent,” the ringmaster explains in an interview with Folio Weekly. “We have incredible, world-class circus artists and production numbers that tell our story of following our dreams.”
A modern combination of musical theater and acrobatics, the show unfolds so close that guests can’t help but feel like they are part of the action. There are aerialists and acrobats, trapeze artists and silk and lyra-hoop performers. Sideshows include a teeterboard act, a flea circus and a cross-bow act to keep things interesting.
“There’s plentiful comedy, hula hoops, magical production numbers, marvels, wonderment, unicorns and glitter,” Venardos laughs. But building a circus from the ground up—and making it both ethical and successful—is serious business.
“I’m certainly following my heart and I’m making the thing I believe in, although I’m not trying to make a political statement,” he continues. “Above all, I’m trying to find a way to let magic and wonder live in 2018, because the audience is really the most important part of the equation. I want to give them a wonderful time. I want to take them away from their troubles. And if I get stuck in a way of thinking that tradition is a way things need to be done simply because it’s the way things have always been done, then I would be a very foolish circus producer indeed.”
Venardos insists he had no design to run away and join the circus when he was a boy. In fact, it happened quite by chance. He was just a New Jersey kid with a passion for musical theater. The fledgling actor hoped to make it big on Broadway, but instead, at 22, he became the youngest ringmaster in Barnum & Bailey’s history.
“I was in New York auditioning for everything people would pay me money to do,” he recalls. “I happened upon this really incredible adventure by just chance or fate.”
He spent the following years crisscrossing the United States on the world’s largest circus train and having the time of his life. In one of his most powerful memories, he rides across New York City astride an elephant. That was when the circus came to Madison Square Garden in 2002. Venardos recalls that he and his entourage had a New York Police Department escort due to heightened security following 9/11.
“I remember having this whole incredible brigade of NYPD in front of us, behind us, and on either side … and I rode the lead elephant across the island. For that time and in that moment, I was just so proud. I saw there were thousands of people on either side of 34th Street as we crossed the island. There were families with kids on their shoulders and office buildings on either side with flashbulbs going off and me, with this top hat and tails, this little singing and dancing kid from New Jersey. It was an incredible sight.”
Venardos’ experiences as a ringmaster provided him with more than great memories—they taught him that he could be an advocate for performers. Indeed, his position gave him a platform to do so. By 2012, he was ready for a change. While he didn’t know what it would look like, Venardos wanted more control over his future.
“Those experiences at Ringling put something in my belly and are a big reason why we are doing something today,” Venardos says. “I don’t like bullies, and one of the bullies of life are those voices and forces that press on you, making you feel like you have to get that kind of safe job, do that thing that everyone might expect. I don’t like being told what to do. When life starts having too much control over that, I’m like a bull scraping the ground. I’ve got to move on. I know that these qualities probably make for a temperamental person, but I’ve found along the way that if everyone was happy with everything I did, I’m probably not doing anything. I’m not accomplishing anything. I wouldn’t be standing for anything. You’re going to encounter people who disagree with you no matter what road you take.”
With rented equipment and big dreams, Venardos and a few friends put on a tiny outdoor performance at the Los Angeles County Fair in 2014. The audience loved it. He then pitched the idea to other fairs and festivals, and the concept of the Venardos Circus began to take shape. Over the next year-and-a-half, the circus visited 20 cities. They had no money. Venardos had to hire new performers and produce a new show in each place. It was risky and should never have succeeded. Yet, somehow, it did.
In 2019, the Venardos Circus will perform eight shows a week for 40 weeks in 20 to 25 cities. Venardos has a regular cast of performers and fans across the nation. Yet he hasn’t finished dreaming yet.
“Dreams are made of the stuff that you actually do and the world you really are born into, more than just what you concoct in your brain,” Venardos says. “There are many forces that make dreams come to be.”
These days, the big top impresario is dreaming of an audience of millions. And he thinks the dream can become reality.
“That’s going to be something that will take me years to do, although with the power of technology and the way that people are following our story online, and especially
the ones who see it live, I don’t think we’re too far away from that lofty goal. Everything is possible.”
The Venardos Circus kicks off the 2019 season here in Northeast Florida, at St. Augustine Amphitheatre, with new acts and production numbers. They’ve been here before, and the connection was so immediate that Venardos is considering making St. Augustine his home base.
“Florida’s been a home for the circus in many ways for different companies,” he says. “There’s a lot of reasons why you’d want to winter here. It’s very possible that we’re going to have roots here at some point.”
The circus experience starts from the moment that spectators spot the red-and-white, 300-person capacity big top. For an hour before show time, performers interact with the crowd, invite kids onstage to learn circus tricks, and happily pose for selfies with guests.
“When people arrive at the tent, they’re actually meeting the performers,” Venardos explains. “They’re the ones taking the tickets, they’re working in the front of the house, they’re working concessions, they perform, and they’re the ones who put up the tent and take it down. You really get to meet these people and see who they are. And then when you see the show, there’s this kind of emotional context.”
Once the performance begins, Venardos says, the audience is transported: “I believe [guests will] be taken away on an adventure that’s going to both bring them back to a simpler time where anything was possible and also remind them that that time still exists today. When they leave that tent, they’ll be reminded of just how powerful they are.”
At the end of the day, Venardos counts on the human connection to gratify his guests.
“It’s awesome and it’s real,” he continues, “Apart from the magic that they’ll experience, I think that they should take pride in knowing that their heart and their support has caused something like this to live against all odds.”
The intimacy, warmth and candor of this underdog success story are what make Venardos Circus so potent. Performers are gainfully paid and well-treated. There are no animals. In our special-effects world, there’s something truly refreshing about the simplicity of it all. Venardos promises folks who visit a show to remember and hopes to make his circus an annual tradition for a new generation of Northeast Floridians.