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Ring master One-man show details obsession with big-top dreams

Like most parents whose children threaten to run off and join the circus, John "Circ" Kane's mother and father did not take him seriously. At first.

Kane, whose obsession with the big top began shortly after he saw a circus performance at Melody Fair when he was 8, spent much of his youth mounting miniature circus extravaganzas in his own basement menagerie to entertain the kids in his South Buffalo neighborhood.

Early on, his family wrote Kane's interest off as a peculiar fascination. But as high school graduation drew closer and Kane remained steadfast in his commitment to a life in the circus, it became clear his obsession would be for life.

But Kane's journey into the ring wasn't smooth, he recalled in a phone interview in advance of a sold-out run of his original one-man show "My Life in the Basement," which opens today in the Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub in South Buffalo.

With his eye fixed on the circus but no idea how to get there, Kane followed in the comically large footsteps of many an aspiring circus performer: He applied to clown college.

But there was just one snag: "I was turned down," Kane said. "My father said it was embarrassing enough to have a son who applied to clown college -- 'Now I have a son who didn't get accepted'."

Lesser performers would have quit on the spot. But not Circ -- the nickname his family gave him as a child. Through a chance encounter at a South Buffalo bar where he worked during his senior year of high school, Kane met a co-worker's father, who shared his obsession with the circus. Through his friend's father, Kane got his foot in the door at the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus in Scranton, Pa. He was told he could start as Kanen the Human Volcano, a fire-eating sideshow act.

But there was just one snag: He didn't know how to eat fire.

"There's no way I'm telling the family I'm not joining, so I say goodbye to them, and a week later I'm siphoning gas out of a truck, trying to learn to eat fire," he said. And it worked.

"The act was so bad it was funny, and the head clown came over and said, you're in the wrong tent." So Kane stepped into a pair of clown shoes and worked his way up through the ranks, eventually settling into the role he had felt destined to play ever since that fateful day at Melody Fair: ringmaster.

"My Life in the Basement," Kane said, is not about the circus itself as much as his upbringing in South Buffalo.

"As outrageous as my circus stories are, the South Buffalo stories are even crazier," he said. "It's really about growing up in the neighborhood and going to high school, and what a disaster that was, just being that weirdo kid. That's really the meat of the play, and I think that's why I'm doing so well with it."

Kane estimates that the show, which has been in development for several years, has been seen by more than 1,500 people. With the help of Joyce Stilson and Neal Radice of Alleyway Theatre, where the show debuted in 2010, he developed a series of stories and jokes into a narrative framework that is still a work in progress.

Beyond garnering plenty of laughs and admiration for its author in and around his native South Buffalo, "My Life in the Basement" has also opened doors for Kane elsewhere. For health-related reasons, Kane thought until recently that his time at the circus was up. But the play caught the eye of "Jersey Boys" associate director West Hyler, who cast Kane as the ringmaster for the Big Apple Circus, which runs in New York City from October through January 2013. For Kane, there's something poetic about his journey.

"It's really weird how it's come full circle," he said. "It's crazy that this play I wrote because my circus work was drying up is now the play that got me back into the circus."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

> PREVIEW

WHAT: "My Life in the Basement"

WHEN: 9:15 tonight and Saturday; 7:15 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub, 2134 Seneca St.

TICKETS: Sold out

INFO: 825-9327