Kelleys Island gives a big welcome to show under big top

An arrangement between the chamber and the Kelleys Island Ferry allows the circus to travel from the mainland at no charge.
Matt Roche
Aug 6, 2014

Before the red-and-blue big top was up, before the pink-and-green streamers were hung, before the peanuts could be passed around, nearly 800 people lined the dock on Kelleys Island late Sunday night to welcome in the Kelly Miller Circus.

At least, that was the crowd estimate from Armando Loyal, the circus’ elephant trainer and caretaker.

“This year was the most I have ever seen,” he said.

This year marks the 13th anniversary of this one-ring circus on the island, according to the Kelleys Island Chamber of Commerce. An arrangement between the chamber and the Kelleys Island Ferry allows the circus to travel from the mainland at no charge.

“Their kindness and cooperation is the reason we can do this,” said Tavana Brown, the circus’ road office manager, who noted the circus could not otherwise afford the trip to Kelleys Island.

The island ferry stays open late for each year’s circus trip to move 37 vehicles across southern Lake Erie.

George Danchisen, a Kelleys Island Ferry crewman, said this year it took about four hours for two boats to make the eight round trips necessary to get all the animals and equipment to the island by midnight Sunday.

Circus owner John Ringling North II said the Kelly Miller Circus has two exciting new acts this year: a Mongolian contortionist and balance act, and an Ethiopian juggler.

For Amina and Zaia, the contortionists, and Abrham Gebre, the juggler, this first year with the circus is also their first time in the United States.

But while it celebrates its unusual new performers, the circus maintains pride in its traditional roots.

Mr. Loyal said he has been with the Kelly Miller Circus his entire life.

“There have been nine generations of us,” he said. “My son, daughter, sisters, cousins, uncles” all work and travel with the circus.

Mrs. Brown touts the circus’ family aspect too.

“We’re all families here and the circus is traditionally generational,” she said. “I saw the other day our vets are father and son, and our dentists are father and son.”

The circus comprises 97 people, Mrs. Brown said, including the performers, electricians, mechanics, cooks, office staff, and their relatives who all work together to put on two shows a day, every day, for 38 weeks during the season.

The people aren’t the only ones doing set-up work, either.

“We are one of the last shows that uses an elephant to raise the big top,” said Ryan Holder, the trainer of the circus’ seven tigers.

Once the elephants have things set up, the animals can perform. Mr. Holder’s tigers walk backward on hind legs and hop like kangaroos. Llamas, dogs, and goats walk atop wheels and jump over barriers. The amazement is endless for the children and adults in the audience.

The two-hour performance can be just part of the fun.

Susan Scott from Hinckley, Ohio, who attended the circus for the third straight year Tuesday afternoon with Ron Sheridan, of North Royalton, Ohio, praised the elephant rides.

“Last year we rode the elephants. We were almost up and we realized we were the only adults in line without children,” she said.

Colleen Feighan traveled from Cleveland to see the circus on Kelleys Island. She said she and her daughters, Mary, 16, and Natalie, 14, “have been coming every year since they were quite young.” The family arrives early in the day each year to upgrade their tickets and get ringside seats, as many do.

“On the first day at 6 a.m., there was a line at the ticket booth,” Mr. Loyal said.

By arriving early, circus-goers can take free tours and watch trainers work with the animals.

Mrs. Brown said each year at Kelleys Island, the first day’s first show is nearly “at capacity,” which is just over 1,100 seats.

The circus performers love the islanders as much as the islanders seem to love them. Many with the circus called the island a “nice, relaxing place” that serves as a “mini-vacation” in their two-day stay.

“It’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen,” Mrs. Brown said. “They treat us like movie stars here.”

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By Kathleen Ashcraft - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)

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