By GLENN COLLINS
Published: October 21, 2008
No longer shall he be lord of the ring.
Paul Binder, the 66-year-old founder, artistic director and ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus, will be stepping away from the tanbark next year after three decades as boss man of the little top.
Mr. Binder is master of ceremonies and principal public symbol of this one-ring show, which begins its 31st season on Thursday in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center. The new production, “Play On!” — featuring 4 horses, 8 dogs and 28 humans from 12 countries in a heated 1,600-seat blue Italian tent — will continue its traditional holiday run through Jan. 18.
“Finally I can get off the road,” said Mr. Binder, who for decades has been ringmaster half of each year. “I didn’t want to do this until I was on my deathbed.”
The new show will be Mr. Binder’s last production, though he will remain behind the scenes with Big Apple, taking the titles of artistic adviser and founding artistic director. He is to focus on fund-raising and planning, and will travel the world searching for new circus acts. Next year his place in the spotlight will be taken by Carrie Harvey, billed as host of “Play On!”
He will be succeeded as artistic director — and circus boss — by Guillaume Dufresnoy, Big Apple’s 48-year-old general manager. A Bordeaux-born former aerialist with the national circuses of France and Switzerland, Mr. Dufresnoy has been a performer or manager at Big Apple for 21 years. For the last 11, he has been second in command to Mr. Binder.
Though creating the show has always been a collaborative process, “ultimately I would make the call,” Mr. Binder said. “Now Guillaume will have the final word.”
The street-smart Big Apple show that made New York a circus town has come a long way from the spunky little counterculture entertainment that Mr. Binder and his co-founder, Michael Christensen, first presented in 1977 in a green 1,000-seat tent set up on landfill destined to become Battery Park City.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Columbia University, Mr. Binder became a television stage manager for Julia Child in Boston, and then a Manhattan talent booker for “The Merv Griffin Show.” After that he ran away with the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the early 1970s, performing political theater with Mr. Christensen, then a comedic actor.
In the mid-1970s the two left the troupe to work as street jugglers “living off our wits,” Mr. Binder recalled. They tossed quips, clubs and hats in London, Paris, Italy, Athens and Istanbul before returning to France to perform in the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, a legendary one-ring show.
Soon Mr. Binder had the idée fixe to create a one-ring circus in Manhattan, and did so in a show that presented its performers to audiences “sometimes awkwardly, sometimes a trifle self-consciously, but altogether winningly,” according to a review of the show’s second season by Richard Eder in The New York Times.
The circus has refined its family-pleasing aesthetic of intimacy, artistry, fun and sense of wonder, and now tours to 10 cities and has a $21 million budget for the show; the circus’s rehearsal complex in Walden, N.Y.; and its charitable divisions, which include school programs and a Clown Care Unit that employs 90 clowns to visit children in hospitals.
Mr. Binder “took the European one-ring style and put his own signature on it,” said a competitor, Kenneth Feld, chief executive of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 2000 Mr. Feld took on Big Apple in Bryant Park with Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, a high-end, one-ring holiday-season show that folded its tent forever on New Year’s Day 2001.
“Paul has done a great job with the show for three decades,” Mr. Feld said, “but just staying alive isn’t enough. He’s done much more than that, and my hat goes off to him.”
Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, called Mr. Binder “a cultural landmark to generations of kids and their parents.” The conservancy designated Mr. Binder and Mr. Christensen as “living landmarks” in 2000. “How many people say, ‘Let’s start a circus, and make it nonprofit,’ and have the imagination and courage and whimsy to keep it going for three decades?” she asked.
Still, in Mr. Binder’s final season at center ring, Big Apple, like many cultural institutions, is facing uncertainty brought on by the Wall Street crisis, which could suppress ticket sales and fund-raising. But given the circus’s loyal patrons, including grandchildren of the first generation of fans, Chris Wearing, chairman of the circus’s 35-person board, said he hoped that “parents may want to be with their families at our show more than ever.”
Another challenge is increasing competition. For nearly three decades Mr. Binder’s show largely owned Manhattan’s holiday-circus season, but last year Big Apple — which spent $2.5 million on its production — was challenged during the holidays not only by “Wintuk,” a $20 million Cirque du Soleil show in the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden, but also by five other circuses, including the Apollo Circus of Soul in Harlem.
Despite that, Big Apple’s $15.5 million in ticket sales and attendance of 475,000 set a record. This season, though, the Apollo show won’t be back, and Soleil — as circus people call it — is revamping “Wintuk” with new acts after mixed reviews last year. It is to open in previews on Oct. 30, with an official opening on Nov. 14.
Mr. Wearing said that despite the economic downturn, the circus hoped to create a summer season and was exploring the possibility of international tours “since we’ve been invited to perform in Asia.”
Mr. Binder will be expected to unleash his charisma at occasional future ceremonial events, including fund-raisers, Mr. Wearing added. This “is not one of those ‘move him out and say he’ll be doing special projects’ things,” Mr. Wearing said. “There is so much we want to do. We want to extend the show and the season, and develop an endowment. We need Paul to protect the franchise, and his legacy, in the future.”
Mr. Binder said he had been working out the details of his transition with the circus board for several years. “We wanted to create a cultural institution that would last after me, and now it will,” said Mr. Binder, who grew up in Brooklyn.
As Mr. Christensen put it, “Nothing stays the same, and something that is alive — like this show — has to grow.” (Mr. Christensen, 61, is formally the co-founder, while Mr. Binder is the founder because he came up with the circus idea in 1976.)
As Mr. Binder separates from Big Apple, he hopes to teach theater performance and management and to work on his autobiography. “Ultimately,” he said, “I suppose I’ll become an éminence grise. I’m already grise.”