Book Review, Entertainment

Mermin’s “Circle of Sawdust” a Delightful Memoir

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CRAFTSBURY – Rob Mermin, the founder of Circus Smirkus in Greensboro, very literally fulfilled many a young person’s dreams of running away to the circus at the age of 19. He delightfully  chronicles his very daring and often hilarious adventures in a new book, “Circle of Sawdust, A Circus Memoir of Mud, Myth, Mirth, Mayhem and Magic.”

The memoir is very well written, combining vivid stories with a depth of feeling, having real momentum, relevant photographs and fine drawings by Karen B. Gersch. Mermin describes his series of extended stays in Europe from 1969 until the early 1980s in search of the training necessary to develop his skills as a clown, before he came to Greensboro to fulfill his second dream, which was to start a traveling circus for kids of all ages as performers. 

We are more likely to take chances in our youth that in retrospect we would have hesitated to risk later, but that is often precisely what makes us grow in every way and gives us the formative experiences that guide us for the rest of our lives. There were no circus schools in this country in the 1960s, but Mermin knew that there were many circuses in European countries where he would find the mentors that could teach him directly from their long traditions of clowning as an art. He recounts the numerous, improbable sequences that opened up opportunities for him, but what we have to admire is his inexplicable persistence to succeed, despite conventional advice, the fundamental characteristic of all true artists.

At the beginning of the summer of 1969, Mermin went to England with a friend from college (and no money) and soon began his apprenticeship with the Circus Hoffman in Wales, dubbed “The Wildest Show on Earth.” After hesitatingly inquiring about getting a job, he was immediately hired and found himself on the bare back of a camel going into the ring that very afternoon. Circus people have good hearts but are no-nonsense and test anyone who applies for work to see whether they could survive. That means being willing to do anything, work 12 hours a day to physical exhaustion with very little pay, to have the imagination to constantly improvise, because the unlikely is likely to happen during performances, and above all, to love the circus way of life. He stayed with Circus Hoffman on their tour through the summer, developing his own clown character as a cowboy with amusing routines. 

At that time he heard that the world famous mime, Marcel Marceau, was opening a mime school in Paris. Having seen Marceau on television in 1965 (The Red Skelton Show) and live in Madison, Wisc., while at college, Mermin signed up and was admitted in the fall of 1969. During his year at L’Ecole Internationale de Mime, he also studied with Marceau’s own mentor, Etienne Decroix. As he sums up his studies there, “The depth of Marceau’s artistry had a profound influence on my career and shaped my artistic world view.” 

Mermin returned to Europe in 1974, and, after a circuitous route, ended up in Copenhagen, Denmark, where, again through improbable chance, he joined the Circus Benneweis as a clown. This was a seven-month season circus with a building of its own in the city, not far from the Tivoli Gardens, founded in 1887. Here for three years he further explored his individual clown persona and incorporated many different comic gags into his repertoire with fellow clowns.  Benneweis was a truly international circus and attracted many of the most talented clowns and other performers from all over Europe, an unparalleled learning experience.

In the spring of 1976 he was back in Europe, engaged with Kossmayer’s Unrideable Mules of the Netherlands, on a tour of Sweden with Cirkus Scott, originally formed in 1937. This was a traveling tent circus with a relatively short summer season. His comic interactions with intractable mules was challenging, and a number of unpredictable mishaps disconcerting, but his fellow circus people were always supportive. 

Returning home, he spent a couple of years with a Canadian touring mime troupe started by an old friend, Paul Gaulin, who had also attended Marceau’s school in Paris. Rob brought to his act a new companion, Rufus, a remarkably intelligent, humorous, and intuitive dog, who learned how to mime.

Then, in 1980, Mermin decided to return to Copenhagen to get back into the circus. Once again, through a serendipitous coincidence, he got a job on a popular Danish television program, TV: Teltet or TV in the Tent, billed as “Rufus the Pantomime Dog.” After the initial successful tryout, Mermin and Rufus were offered a contract for the rest of the 1981-82 season. The duo became celebrities in Denmark for their highly amusing mutual mime act.

Mermin had never given up his vision of creating a circus with children as the major performers. He came back to the United States and, after a short stay in New York City, moved to Vermont. What followed demonstrates how an individual with persistence and a powerful vision can inspire others to join him and make it all happen. The later chapters of his book detail the early years where, after buying the Richardson Farm in Greensboro in the mid-1980s, Circus Smirkus had its modest beginnings in 1987. After many initial setbacks, the circus then grew steadily to national and even international recognition, giving hundreds (and now thousands) of children the opportunity to develop their circus skills and share what they love to do best with the public. Much of those fascinating years has already been presented in two of Mermin’s earlier books, “Circus Smirkus; A True Story of High Adventure and Low Comedy” (1997) and “Circus Smirkus; Twenty-Five Years of Running Home to the Circus: (2012, with Bob Gurwitt).

The “Circle of Sawdust” title pictures all that remains of a tent circus’ presence after everyone has packed up and gone on to the next town, an archetypal circle of wood chips on the earth, evocative of rich memories, with which Charlie Chaplin ended the last scene of his classic film, “The Circus” (1928). 

David K. Rodgers

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