Photo: Les Kimes who plays Cousin Grumpy with the Pork Chop Review rehearses parts of his act with Big Mac the pig for Circus Flora’s upcoming show “The Case of the Missing Bellhop” on Friday, April 13 2018, in their new home under the Big Top in Grand Center. Photo by Laurie Skrivan
The horses snuffled in their temporary stalls on Samuel Shepard Drive, wearing blankets to fend off the morning chill.
A metal contraption called the Wheel of Destiny sat on the ground, not quite ready to rise, flip and thrill.
And workers set up computers inside a new, climate-controlled box office — literally a box, because it’s an old shipping container.
The show at Circus Flora is new every year, but this is a year of new beginnings for the troupe. It opens the season in a new location not far from its old spot. It’s also getting started earlier in spring, when it’s cooler, instead of in June.
The 32nd season officially kicks off Saturday evening and runs through May 13. A peanut-free preview was Thursday night; two other previews are Friday night and Saturday afternoon.
“We’re really excited about what this is going to be. And we’re curious,” says Larry Mabrey, executive director of Circus Flora, during a tour of the new grounds this month, as performers began arriving in town for rehearsals. “We know what’s going to be inside the tent will be exciting.”
The curiosity comes with how the circus will use its new space — and the ideas the public gets once they learn about it. The red-and-white tent usually rises each summer over Grand Center behind Powell Symphony Hall and comes down when the season is over.
Now, the big top, at 3401 Washington Boulevard, will stay up for six months. The Kranzberg Arts Foundation, which owns and maintains the tent, plans to rent it for galas and weddings when the circus closes. After this season, they’ll hammer out ideas for next year and beyond: summer camps, classes and more.
The foundation also owns the land, formerly a St. Louis University parking lot. Circus Flora converted the lot’s old blue-and-white SLU sign to a white, yellow and red one announcing “Big Top: The Home of Circus Flora.”
It’s only a few blocks from the old space, and the tent is visible from the Fox Theatre. Circus Flora is taking its time making the short move from its offices at 3547 Olive Street, but employees look forward to moving into the new offices — four shipping containers — next to the tent.
The red Circus Flora sign with script lettering that used to top the tent now adorns the new offices.
“Having the big top in its dedicated space — it’s our best billboard,” says Jack Marsh, the artistic director for the circus. He points out that people will see the tent and learn that Circus Flora is a St. Louis-based institution and not a traveling circus that comes to town once a year.
Circus Flora was commissioned in 1986 for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and made St. Louis its home the next year.
The new location means it will be easier for employees and performers to get from the offices to the tent. A couple of blocks separated the offices from the old tent location.
In the old space, a temporary electrical transformer had to be installed to power the show. Now, Circus Flora has its own, the offices and tent have Wi-Fi, and security cameras monitor the space.
Permanent concrete anchors in the ground will make it easier to set up the tent, shaving a few days off the usual construction time. The preshow area, where spectators enjoy jugglers and other performers before the big top show, is bigger.
A nearby grassy lot, also owned by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, will give performing animals like dogs and horses a place to relax and play.
Marsh, 33, has been with Circus Flora since he was a toddler. His mother, Cecil MacKinnon, is a veteran Circus Flora performer and narrates each show.
Marsh graduated from Harvard University and jokes that he ran away from his job as a corporate lawyer in New York to rejoin the circus.
He says his work as artistic director is much more interesting. He searches the country for acts to perform in the show.
For this year’s production, “The Case of the Missing Bellhop,” acrobat Jeison Dominguez will scale the spinning Wheel of Destiny. Roxand Gilliant will perform on the trapeze, and a trio of acrobats, Swing Up, will bounce and leap from a trampowall. The Flying Wallendas, the Alaninan Riders and Circus Harmony’s St. Louis Arches will return.
Cuzin Grumpy and his trained pigs had already called the back lot home, a day before rehearsals were set to begin. Les “Cuzin Grumpy” Kimes said his father, Boyd “Uncle Heavy” Kimes, started the Pork Chop Revue in 1956. They’re based in the Sarasota, Fla., area.
“Pigs are as smart as dogs,” Les Kimes says as he sprays down the asphalt while four waist-tall pigs relax and make themselves at home.
The pigs are guests at the show’s fictional Balding Hotel. Marsh and his mother wrote the show. He figured the hotel setting gave them a chance to build a set with a touch of glamour, show off fun costumes and serve as a revolving door for a variety of guests both human and hoofed.
And with the new earlier season, performers and audiences won’t have to contend with St. Louis heat that even air-conditioning can’t beat.
What Circus Flora: “The Case of the Missing Bellhop” • When Previews at 7 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday, opens at 7 p.m. Saturday; through May 13 • Where The Big Top, 3401 Washington Boulevard • How much $12-$75 • More info circusflora.org