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Circus Smirkus at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Written by Rob Mermin, founder of Circus Smirkus

The Smirkus Troupe at the Smithsonian

Ripley and Cam on the Rinzler Stage

I recently took five Smirkus alum to the 10-day, circus-themed Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C. What a fun event!

There were circus luminaries from across the country, artists and directors, like:

  • Dolly Jacobs  (the only circus performer in history to be honored with a National Heritage Fellowship award by the National Endowment for the Arts), 
  • Rafael Palaciosfourth generation trapeze artist, inducted into Sarasota’s Circus Ring of Fame, has performed for the likes of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and Pope John Paul II. 
  • Elena Panova Award winning Russian-born aerialist formerly of the Moscow Circus, Big Apple Circus.
  • Paul Binder – (founder Big Apple Circus)
  • Dominique Jando and LaVahn Hoh (noted circus historians).

Ripley and Cam in the Big Top

There were professional shows daily by UniverSoul Circus, Circus Sarasota, The Bindlestiff Family Circus, among many others.

Several social circus youth groups performed: Circus Juventas (Minnesota), Circus Harmony (St. Louis), Sailor Circus (Florida), Wenatchee Circus (Washington), to name a few.

Famous American clowns roamed the Mall to do workshops and perform: Steve Smith (longtime Dean of Clown College), Jeff Raz (Director of San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory), Peggy Williams (Ringling Bros. first well known female clown), Bello Nock, Robin Eurich, and many more.

Jen Agans, Jackie Davis,
Smirkus education team at the Smithsonian

And then there was Smirkus.

Jen Agans and Jackie Davis provided the crowds with an entertaining clown show on how to learn circus.

The Five Smithsoniacs (Smirkus alums Cam Zweir, Ripley Burns, Ivan Jermyn, Delaney Bayles, Chase Culp) and I put on a daily show to standing room crowds, and were invited to perform the opening for the professional evening show Stars of Circus!

Throughout the festival, I also participated in daily public panels with other old-timers, on topics such as Running Away to the Circus, Why are Clowns Scary?, Life on the Road, Circus Lingo, and my own program on Mime.

It was an important event, raising awareness of Circus in this country, being recognized by the Smithsonian and the NEA as an art form.

The Five Smithsoniacs (and Robbo): bottom, Chase, Delaney, Cam. Top: Ivan, Ripley


It was also very gratifying to to hear how respected Circus Smirkus is in the circus world. Our reputation is solid, not only for producing sought-after performers, but for our style, philosophy, connection to the old world circus values and traditions, and for being bold and wacky enough to tour under our own Big Top.

While our presence at the festival was small in numbers compared to the other youth groups, we made a huge impression to the public, the Smithsonian folks, and to the wider professional circus world.

We can all be proud of our company.


Circus Smirkus Smithsonian

At the NEA Symposium on Circus   Back row: Dominique Jando, Murry Horwitz (NPR broadcaster), Peggy Williams, Paul Binder, Jimmy Tinsman  Middle: Giovanni Zoppe, Dolly Jacobs and Pedro Reis, (unknown), Vanessa Thomas, Gypsy Snider. Rob Mermin

Circus Smirkus Smithsonian

The Company on the Rinzler Stage

Paul Binder, founder of The Big Apple Circus and me at breakfast

Circus Smirkus Smithsonian

Chase Culp

Circus Smirkus Smithsonian

Ivan Jermyn