John Kennedy Kane is living his dream as ringmaster for the Big Apple Circus. It’s a role he prepared for as a child, when he would stage circus acts in the basement of his South Buffalo home. In fact, his childhood memories form the basis for a one-man show he wrote and performs. It’s called “Life in the Basement.”
A 1979 graduate of Bishop Timon High School, Kane started in the circus as a fire eater named Kanen the Human Volcano. He has since appeared in 15 circuses, often playing clowns with names like Egg Roll and Circ (short for Circus Man). Last year, Kane performed as the World’s Biggest Elf at the Hamburg Fairground’s Festival of Lights show.
His latest gig finds him in Manhattan, where “Legendarium” runs for 134 shows through Jan. 13 under the Big Top at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center. This year, the 35th anniversary of the Big Apple Circus salutes the old time one-ring circus.
Kane adds humor to his role as ringmaster, growing muttonchops, walking the sawdust-and-dirt circle to engage the audience and allowing them to experience the circus through the eyes of a 10-year-old.
People Talk: How did Hurricane Sandy affect the circus?
John Kennedy Kane: We all took refuge in the band shell basement during the hurricane, and we found a pizzeria that delivered. It was wild. All of a sudden the sky was coming down, and this guy is coming down to the band shell with pizza. Our 4:30 p.m. Sunday show didn’t go on because the mayor canceled all shows in parks. And the actual Monday and Tuesday we had off. The Big Top wasn’t touched at all.
PT: How was your first show in New York?
JKK: We had a friendly crowd because it was a dress rehearsal, so you get to invite guests. I had some college buddies from St. Bonaventure in the crowd with their families. People have commented to me that I was relaxed.
PT: This is your dream.
JKK: Yes. For many years actors had portrayed the ringmaster role because it is a theatrical kind of show. People in the business have said the Big Apple has a real ringmaster this year. They laugh at me back stage – I actually stand the whole show – but once I have everything tucked in and buttoned, I don’t want to sit down.
I look like the Mad Hatter, or something from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Of all my years being a clown, I’m finally a ringmaster and they’ve got me in a clown costume. I’ve grown attached to it, though. The hat looks like a corset; it’s all laced up. When people comment on my beard, I tell them it’s 50 shades of gray.
PT: Your name is perfect for a ringmaster.
JKK: People think it’s made up, but like I say in the show: My parents had different plans for me. And then people were asking me if I voted. My name is John Kennedy and you’re asking if I voted? Of course I did. That’s what we do in our family.
PT: Do you ad lib as ringmaster?
JKK: The director saw a video of my one-man show, so throughout the rehearsal process he would get me to just talk to the audience. He wants it very conversational. The audience is in my living room, and I’m telling them a story. Three rings are not the one-ring intimate that we are.
PT: How does one ring change your job?
JKK: Believe me, the audience is right around the ring. So when the horses go by they get dirt on their laps sometimes. We hope it’s only dirt. Another thing, because they are so close, we can see them texting. We see them on the phone.
PT: Is the show for adults as well as children?
JKK: The quality of the acts is so unbelievable that the kids may not appreciate it, but the adults are blown away. There’s one act, a contortionist who just stops the show. That’s one of the things the director focused on: We are all part of the puzzle. There are no prima donnas here. Everyone gets along backstage. I’ve never had that in a circus before.
PT: What else distinguishes the Big Apple Circus?
JKK: This circus is produced. We’re real big on transitions, one thing flowing into the next. Plus I pop up in all these different places in the seats, so I don’t always walk out from the same place and talk. I’m up on the bandstand twice. Every time I go up in the bandstand, there are different musicians because they sub in and out from the Broadway shows. The costume girl had all kinds of Broadway credits. So I guess adults do appreciate the theatrical element more.
PT: What’s the best part about being a ringmaster?
JKK: It’s a crazy thing, but you do feel important. What the audience doesn’t know is that I have no authority whatsoever.
PT: Any star sightings in the audience?
JKK: Gilbert Gottfried was here, and I did have dinner with Matthew Broderick because we went to see him in his Broadway show. He always brings his son here so he wanted to meet up afterward.
PT: Where do you live?
JKK: Right on the property. Trailer row, we call it.
PT: What do you do between performances?
JKK: There’s not much time on some days, but I’m a big nap guy. I lie down. I am gone, and thank God the alarm goes off. Believe it or not, I joined a gym across the street.
PT: How many circuses have you been in?
JKK: About 15. Everyone says wow, great experience. My father said I can’t hold a job. I lived in New York in the late ’80s trying to be an actor. I’d go over to Lincoln Center to watch the circus, and I recall the founder at one point threw me out of the tent. I guess I was where I wasn’t supposed to be. Now he just comes around and chats. He is now appreciative of what I do.
PT: Did your father come to see you yet?
JKK: No, and I wish the family was more encouraging about that, but later in the season we play Lake George, in late June or early July. We’ll get a cabin and bring Dad. My sister, Bonnie [Kane Lockwood] works for [Congressman] Brian Higgins, so she caught opening night in Washington, D.C. Now she’s got 11 girlfriends coming to see me in the show. That will be good, a group of girls from South Buffalo will be sober watching the circus.