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The circus is in town

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DOSE OF NOSTALGIA: Romario Perez performs on the tight wire during the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus show Wednesday evening at the Converse Airport.
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MAGIC MAN: Colton Lindsay, 10, right helps Leo the Clown with a magic trick during the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus show Wednesday evening at the Converse Airport.

BY Lucas Robinson - lrobinson@chronicle-tribune.com

CONVERSE – Announcer Simone Key promised the crowd at Wednesday night's performance of the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus an “old-time traditional big-top circus, exact to every detail.” The crowd underneath the big-top in Converse got just that, down to the packaged peanuts.

Though the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus admits most of its audience is accustomed to television, the sights of the performance could be seen in any photo from the heyday of the circus, once a must in the entertainment diet of any average American. From tigers and lions jumping on pedestals, to a honking clown car, the night's two back-to-back performances was a dose of nostalgia for all in attendance.

When Carol and Bud Bence of Marion heard famed circus Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was ending last year, they thought their granddaughter Kyrie would never see a circus. When Bud heard Culpepper & Merriweather was coming to Converse, he wanted his granddaughter to have the experience.

“Every child should get to see a circus once in their life,” Bence said.

The Culpepper & Merriweather Circus has been in existence since the mid-1980s and travels to small towns throughout the United States, with up to 200 dates each year. The circus alternates between two tour schedules each year, one of Midwest dates and one of West Coat dates.

Simone Key, who also performs in the trapeze and unicycle routine, has performed with the circus since 2003 and is a third generation member of the act. She said she is not alone in being raised by previous members of the act, remarking “a lot of people here are multi-generational.”

Belgica Perez, a fifth generation member whose brother and father are in the act, said she was “born into” the circus.

“It's fun,” she said. “You get to see a lot of cities, hear the history of a town.”

In order to bring the circus to Converse, the outfit partnered with the Converse Volunteer Fire Department. After being contacted from the circus, the department agreed to sell tickets for the circus in exchange for help funding the purchase of “new tools and gear” for the department, said Firefighter Jake Simpkins.

“I think it's turned out perfect,” Simpkins said.

“This is the first time we've ever done it,” said Firefighter Chris Ohman. “We didn't know what to expect.”

Outside the big-top, the circus featured a petting zoo, bounce houses and a “Giant Snake.” Yet inside the tent was entertainment which seemed out of place in the year 2018.

A unicyclist juggled flaming sticks, a trapeze artist traversed the wire blindfolded and a clown performed a slapstick routine to an excited crowd of mostly young children and their families.

Trey Key, who performed the lion and tiger routine, openly laughed-off licks and growls from the big cats, named Francis and Delilah.

As Key tried to get the crowd to motivate Francis to mount a pedestal, he asked what the “magic word” was for a lion.

“You want me to say please to a lion,” he said to shouts of “please” from the crowd. “It's a terrible idea. I've tried it once.”