BY JULE OBERMILLER
Special to the US&J;
“Ladies and gentlemen, step right up to the biggest little show in Lockport!”
Fifty years ago, the ringmaster of the Exchange and Lions Circus called out to more than 2,000 circus-goers at the Lockport Armory on Willow Street. This weekend, The Exchange Club Charity Ring Circus celebrates its golden year with another fun show at the Kenan Arena, carrying on a great tradition of chuckles for charity.
After William Donald ran away from home as a child to join the circus (he didn’t get far), he carried his fascination into adulthood, attending every circus within driving distance.
When the Lockport Lions and Exchange clubs decided to try to put on a circus in 1960 to raise money, they put Bill, a newspaper photographer, at the helm as chairman. Henry Hubert of the Lions Club and Niel DeWolf of the Exchange Club were co-chairmen.
The original Lockport Clowns made their own costumes and props and devised zany acts for the crowd. Bill Donald was joined by butcher Don Kaufman, DeWitt Clinton Principal Wes Arnold, musician George Bridgeman, sales manager (and later Lockport Mayor) Ray Betsch and ad salesmen Ed Moran and Dave Seekins to become the “cavalcade of clowns” advertised for the show. Overflowing crowds had organizers scrambling to put tumbling mats on the floor for children so adults had the seats. The original ticket price was $1 for adults and 75 cents for children. A profit of $1,200 went to the American Cancer Society and Sight Conservation, a Lions project. The success of the show launched an annual event. Fifty years later, the price is still only $4 for adults and $2 for children.
The 1961 circus featured a young Tom Jolls as ringmaster, in top hat and red riding coat. There were Carl Hackman and 25 acrobats from the Buffalo Turners, a fire-eater named Harold Rupp, a human cannonball and an 18-piece band. Darcy Brown’s High Beam athletes and the Esther Wallace dancers were some of the 20 thrilling acts. Indians from the Tonawanda Indian Reservation mesmerized the crowd with tribal dances, and promoters promised “a small animal menagerie will include the haughty South American llama, the delicate deer, ponies, monkeys and an assortment of dogs and pigs, and a lone duck.”
Over the years, sea lions Salty and Sweet Pea played their horns and cymbals, and unique acts from all over joined the clowns. The circus was taken over by the Exchange Club and continued at the armory until the move to the Kenan Indoor Arena. Generations of circus-goers have seen many changes, such as no animals in the arena, but the clowns are central to it all. Each year, professional acts headline the show ,and this year they offer some heart-stopping action.
Flippenout Extreme Trampolining from Plainfield, Conn., will bring national and Olympic competitors and medalists to perform high energy, non-stop action with triple flips, twists, snowboards and skis, all at high altitude.
Crowd favorite Nels Cremean of “In Jest,” juggling that defies gravity, returns with his mystifying routine. Lockport’s own CRS Band provides live music throughout the circus. There are tumbling demonstrations by the Lockport Flips, Karate demonstrations by the USA Self Defense Club and clowns roaming everywhere in between. The fast-paced action never stops; at intermission they hold a raffle drawing for a bike and other prizes.
Each show starts with all the children in the audience coming into the circus ring to dance with the clowns, and the arena is a great place for children to be free to sit up close on the floor or wander when restless. The show is interactive, family-friendly and entertaining for all ages. Show times are 7 p.m. on Friday and 1 and 4 p.m. on Saturday.
The EC Circus is truly a family affair. Clowns draft their children, then grandchildren, into the ranks. Matthew McIntyre started as a child clown named Polka Dots nearly 20 years ago, while grandpa Don was the perennial stage manager and grandma Dee was part of the crew. Matthew’s now a 6 foot, 2-inch polka-dotted clown on a unicycle and never misses a show. Gloriann Hutchins as Chuckles is the wife of Exchange member Hartley “Hutch” Hutchins, and their daughter, Heidi, comes from Pennsylvania each year to perform as Kazoo. Heidi’s daughter, Katie, 4, has appeared as Jumparoo and brother Oliver, 2, joins this year as Hopscotch.
“When I began, I was fascinated by the background of the people who put the circus together. Just like any other organization, they were of every occupation, and the most unlikely ones became clowns. With all service organizations losing members, the circus brings out many club members and community volunteers to make it a success and to spread gifts to many organizations helping kids. The support of many in the community brought this fun couple of days, in the middle of winter, to the young and young at heart,” Hutchins said.
Sheehan family clowns include Danny, Andy and Josh. John Buczkowski and sister Anita Tice are Bucky and Dizzy Lizzy. Costello clowns include Tom, Shawn and Shannon, and there are many more colorful characters. It wouldn’t be the circus without DeSales School’s Paul Schuster as the Bombastic Ringmaster. When the performers are out front getting the applause, a network of hard-working people are behind the scenes making it all come together. While some are taking tickets, handing out programs or filling colorful balloons with helium, others are popping and boxing fresh popcorn or stocking coolers with drinks. The prop crew has the difficult job of keeping the acts running smoothly, and mopping up after the traditional slop act.
For all the laughter and merriment, the serious side of the circus is the mission to raise funds for the Exchange Club, which supports more than 25 community organizations, from the YMCA and YWCA to Lockport’s hospital, library, high school hockey, Midget League baseball, Blazer Drum Corps and more. They help senior citizens adult day care and the soup kitchen, the Red Cross, South Lockport Fire Co. and many others. The Exchange Club’s Covenant of Service ends with “To serve in unity with those seeking better conditions, better understandings and greater opportunities for all.” They call themselves Lockport’s biggest little service club because there are not many members, but they have the biggest hearts anywhere and their extended families inspire a community to unite in service to one another.
Each year the club loses members who have passed on after years of service; this year they lost Ray Betsch, Ray Dreyer and LaVern Ulrich. Ulrich was the senior EC member with 60 years of service. Volunteers with that much dedication are hard to replace, but their spirit lives on in their legacy of giving. Jack Tillotson is still going strong with 55 years, followed by Don Kaufman with 49 years, Tom Costello with 37 and Elmer Zolyome with 32. The club is always looking for new members to embrace the community service spirit.
Tickets for this weekend’s circus are available at Spalding Ace Hardware in Lockport, at Kenyon’s stores or at the door.
BY JULE OBERMILLER
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