Monday, April 20, 2009

Shrine Circus offers oodles of escapism

By Kellie B. Gormly
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sometimes, it hits Jennifer Smith just how interesting, and even bizarre, her career is: being blasted out of cannons and flying up to 150 feet through the air at the Shrine Circus, which comes to Mellon Arena this weekend.

"I know it sounds very strange, but it's usual to me," says Smith, 35, of Bolivar, Mo. "It doesn't really register, because it's something I've been doing (for 18 years)."

When Smith is out with her kids and hears them talking about what she does for a living, she sees the amazement and puzzlement on the other children's faces.

"I am incredibly lucky and I love my life," Smith says. Her father, David Smith, is a cannon champion. "I get the opportunity to travel around the world. ... (Fans) are always very intrigued, and I love that."

Smith, called "The Cannon Lady," will be among the acrobats, clowns, wild animals and other performers at the Shrine Circus, which will show Friday through Sunday. The three-ring circus includes Clayton Rosaire's "The Big Cat Encounter" with tigers, juggling acts, the "Big Syrian Bears" act, elephant acts with three adult pachyderms and two babies, goofy clown acts, Spider-Man appearances, an instant costume-changing magic act, and more.

A guest clown is the famous "Grandma the Clown," played by Barry Lubin of the Big Apple Circus in New York. Grandma got his name from his atypical clown appearance: He wears a red dress, regular gray wig, glasses and yellow knee-highs.

"I did not want to be a caricature; I wanted to be a character," says Lubin, of Garwood, N.J. "If I look like every other clown ... then nobody's ever going to notice me. I have the look of somebody who accidentally wandered in from the audience."

Lubin will be making several comical appearances throughout the show, including for a lesson on water-spitting, and a lip-sync of a Britney Spears song.

"It's one of my greatest thrills to do a three-ring circus," he says. "It's a major treat for me as a performer."

Paul Leavy, the Pittsburgh-area promoter for the Shrine Circus, has been able to get Grandma as a guest performer several times because of their friendship.

The Shrine Circus, despite the bad economy, has seen an increase in attendance recently, Leavy says. The most expensive ticket is $20.

"I say it's escapism," he says. "In these economic times, we are proud to say that we are still the most economical family show to come to the arena.

"It offers something for everyone, no matter what age you are," Leavy says.