I remember our first meeting. Gail and Bob Cassilly were both there. I had Kellin Quinn in a pumpkin seat and set him on the table.”It’s YOU!” Bob exclaimed when I walked in. Artist Bill Christman had set up the meeting. I didn’t know Bob, although I had wondered what was going on behind the serpentine walls that took up a full block between 15th and 16th street on Delmar. And I had gone to First Night earlier in the year and tried to wheel a double-wide stroller with Elliana and Keaton in it through the construction site/master studio that was becoming City Museum. A nice man had helped me carry the stroller over and thru the rubble. I realized then that it had been Bob.
“It’s YOU!!” He said, excited, as his wife looked at me quizzically. He wasn’t talking about the stroller. Bob had seen me performing with Circus Flora. He remembered me doing the aerial double trapeze, trick cycling with juggling and bareback riding acts. Although this had been a few years ago, the Hentoff & Hoyer Duo aerial act had especially stuck with him since the shapes were so sculptural. I learned later, besides loving the beauty of the act images, Bob thought of me as some crazy circus daredevil. Nothing could be further from the truth! I only make bets when I am sure I will win (so I don’t usually do so) and my circus acts were no exception. I trusted my training, my rigging and my partner. But this was a leap into the unknown.
Here was a bet being offered that no one could calculate but could not be refused: to be part of the not-yet-open City Museum. Despite the boring, stodgy name (I had suggested Wonderarium), City Museum has become the most physical, unique museum ever created. So City Museum became the home first for my everydaycircus entertainment company, where we still make every day a circus day. Bob said we could do whatever we wanted in the little back corner he gave us on the third floor of City Museum. He just asked that we have live entertainment— especially my students, the St. Louis Arches. So, everydaycircus also opened the Baby Elephant Cafe snack bar— a trunkful of junk food, delicious if not nutritious—- and offered great birthday parties where the birthday child got to be part of a circus show and was served cake in a circus party room. We also had a souvenir stand where you could make your own sand art, spin art, soap art and candle art. The shows featured all the services offered by everydaycircus— including the petting zoo (until the water buffalo got too big to fit in the elevator).
Then, 12 years ago, when I turned 50, I decided to make a different sort of leap. I wanted to open my own circus school. I had been training the St. Louis Arches since 1989 under the auspices of Circus Flora. In 2001, Flora decided to stop funding their circus education programs to focus on their show. I couldn’t turn around and tell my young acrobats— some already 2nd generation— that there was no more circus for them. So, that is when I decided to start Circus Harmony (at first called Circus Day Foundation), to keep the Arches going and to expand circus education opportunities for other children in the St. Louis area.
I went to Bob and reminded him that he said I could do anything I wanted to in my City Museum space and that I wanted to stop doing birthday parties and open a circus school. Bob always appreciated the physicality of what we did (I remember him even trying spinning on a lyra at one point). Countless people have remarked on how Bob was just like a big kid, himself, and much of his success was because he built things based on his never losing his sense of wonder and wanting to share that with kids. I always felt he cared more what kids thought than grown-ups and he built with them in mind.
City Museum has been Circus Harmony’s physical home since I started Circus harmony in 2001. There could not be a better home for St. Louis’ only social circus and complete circus school. From Circus Harmony’s first program, Circus Salaam Shalom, that brought together St. Louis Muslim and Jewish children to our current Peace Through Pyramids partnerships with children from different St. Louis neighborhoods, all our participants have been able to showcase their talents while defy gravity and other limitations in our circus ring at City Museum. We are the only circus school— or, for that matter, the only performing arts school of any type, that we know of— that presents over 500 shows a year. We now serve over 1000 children a year through our classes at City Museum and our numerous outreach locations.
Circus Harmony has been the literal launching pad of Kellin Quinn, who was the first Circus Harmony student to do a one-man show— which he did when he was 6 years old, one of the top 40 jugglers in the world for the past three years (who was the baby on the table during that first meeting with Bob), Elliana Grace, the youngest female human cannonball ever on Ringling Brothers, Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan Wallenda-Zoppé, now one of The Flying Wallendas, Terrance T-Roc Robinson who is with the Canadian-based Les Productions Haut-Vol, Keaton Hentoff-Killian who is touring the world with the Australian Circa Contemporary Circus, Sidney Iking Bateman and Melvin Diggs who just got back from touring the world the Les 7 Doigts de la Main and are now joining Cirque du Soleil and others.
Most of all, our City Museum home ring has given our students the place to not only defy gravity but to learn to soar with confidence. Thanks to the ‘glass tent’ that Bob put our little circus school in, Museum patrons watch our students train as well as perform. One patron was once moved to write a letter to one of our students who the patron watched fail at attempting a trick over and over again until our student caught it. The letter was addressed to the girl in the circus ring and gave the date and time. It thanked our student for the inspirational example of her perseverance to succeed.
Bob’s gamble of starting City Museum continues to pay off and it is amazing to be part of it. Almost a million people a year come to visit. His handpicked Cassilly Crew keeps building. His daughter, Daisy, joined the Crew and his son, Max took over Bill Christman’s Beatnik Bob’s. Rick Erwin, who was the managing director when Bob died tragically in 2011, keeps the Museum growing and expanding and has added an art gallery. The Museum also houses Art City, the Shoelace Factory and the Snowflake Lady where people are invited to create their own artistic works to take home. Joining this journey 20 years ago has given us a home like no other. Every day at City Museum, people can experience the power and potential, the capability and creativity of children in the Circus Harmony ring. We also offer shows by our alumni, teaching artists, everydaycircus entertainers and other talented people who can amaze and amuse you.
Circus is like City Museum. A lot of it seems crazy but it touches a deep, aspirational part of humans in the part of their psyche that craves wonder and needs to play. It’s not about the risk-taking — Bob often talked about the ‘perceived danger” — it is about finding your limits so you know where they are; it is about actually experiencing, rather than digitally doing; it is about using your whole body, which is something children NEED. It is about seeing wonder and being part of the wonder. It is about creating— the exact reason that Bob remembered and admired my aerial act— using your body to be part of the art. City Museum is a phenomenal work of art by itself but its true purpose is to have people on and in it. That is the masterpiece Bob Cassilly created and that Circus Harmony is so honored to be a part of. Happy 20th Birthday City Museum!
October 23, 2017