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Shrine Circus mixes death-defying acts and fun

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

Get ready to ooh, aah, aww and guffaw, because the circus is coming to town. The 109th Shrine Circus will delight audiences of all ages this weekend with fate-tempting trapeze tricks, exotic animals and, of course, plenty of clowning around.

For three jam-packed days the Hazel Park Raceway will host world-class entertainment in the world's largest big top tent, including two daredevil high-wire troupes (the Cortes family and the legendary Wallendas), the Shrine Clown Corps, a petting zoo and dazzling elephant and tiger acts.

The Shrine Circus was established in 1906 as both a way of rejuvenating spirits at the bitter end of winter and raising money for a good cause.

"The Shrine uses the circus to entertain its children, entertain the general population, to keep the Shrine name out there, and as a fundraiser," says Craig Stigleman, Detroit Shrine vice president. "The funds raised from this circus go to our general fund to help us operate our building. That in turn allows our volunteers to do what they do, which is drive our children to the hospitals. We drive children to Erie, Cincinnati, and Chicago hospitals, and we have transportation on the road all week long transporting these kids and their families to treatment."

Rick Wallenda , will thrill audiences with the latest incarnation of his family's illustrious ensemble. The group will perform an electrifying stunt called the Chair Pyramid, which was made famous by his ancestors.

"We're going to do it with three of us, and my sister will be on the chair," Wallenda says. "Two of us will be standing on the wire. We'll be yoked together with a shoulder bar, we'll place a chair on that bar, and then my sister will sit on it. We'll walk out to the middle, and she'll stand up. Then she'll sit down and proceed over to the next pedestal. It's going to be an exciting show."

It sounds pretty straightforward until you remember the dangerous circumstances under which the group will perform this stunt.

"When we elevate you and put an audience in front of you, and music, it can overwhelm a person," Wallenda says. "We can teach you the basic skills in a matter of days, but high-wire is 90 percent psychological. Our safety devices are practice and caution. A net isn't necessarily going to save you. There's not enough money in the world to make somebody do something like this, but there's a thrill to it, and we love being up there. We love the audience response."

A brand new member of the World Famous Wallendas, Sharlie See, will make her debut at this year's Shrine Circus.

"She's busy training very hard and she will probably perform her first walk in Detroit," Wallenda says. "Our palms are going to be sweating as much as hers when she walks across that wire for the first time."

The Shrine Clown Corps will perform skits and goof around with the crowd to take the edge off between death-defying feats. The Corps has been clowning for a cause at the Shrine Circus every year since 1967.

"Last year we did such a good job that this year they doubled our pay. Last year they paid us nothing, this year we'll get double-nothing," Corps member Ron Buckner jokes. "It's known as the greatest unit in Shrinedom, and it's the hardest one to join because it's the most active. It's time consuming, but you get out of life what you put into it. I put a lot into this because we do it for the burned and crippled kids. You do this out of your heart, and it's fulfilling."

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

The 109th Detroit Shrine Circus


Hazel Park Raceway

1650 E 10 Mile Rd

Parking $7, event tickets $8-$55

(866) 992-2472