Circus bringing daredevils, big cats and other performers to New Whiteland

Step right up, step right up — the circus is coming to town.

When the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus opens its big top in New Whiteland on Aug. 14, they’ll have high-flying aerialists and trained big cats ready to wow attendees. Bareback riders and daredevils will elicit cheers from the audience.

Circus clown Leo Acton infuses the entire event with a sense of humor and whimsy.

“We try to focus on old-school, traditional circus. We’re about as old-fashioned as it gets without going around in wagons,” said Simone Key, a co-owner of the circus as well as aerialist, unicycle performer, ringmaster and other roles. “It brings to mind a long-forgotten era.”

The Culpepper and Merriweather Circus has added New Whiteland to its annual tour, one of more than 200 towns in 17 states on this year’s slate. Specializing in affordable, all-ages performances, the show puts the audience just a few feet from the action.

Arranged by the Town of New Whiteland, local officials hope the event helps local families and kids of all ages create a day full of memories.

“The council just wanted to provide family-friendly entertainment in the community. We think it’s going to be great,” said Maribeth Alspach, a longtime clerk-treasurer for New Whiteland who recently retired.

Culpepper and Merriweather Great Combined Circus was born in 1985, when Robert Johnson, Jim Hebert and Curtis Cainan started a small show. They took turns announcing, performing and selling concessions during each performance for the first year.

Instead of selling tickets, the group relied on donations received from passing a hat at the end of each show.

From those small beginnings, the circus has grown to include a wide variety of acts and performers. Audiences can watch the circus’ lion and tiger presented by co-owner Trey Key, the 10th generation Loyal Bareback Horse Riders, the Perez Daredevil Duo on the tightrope and Wheel of Destiny, and Brandon Ayala on the Rola Bola.

“One of the comments we get from people is they like how you’re right in the action. There’s no seat that’s more than 40 feet from the show. You’re right there,” Key said. “It’s that romantic notion of seeing the circus under the big top.”

The circus was originally scheduled to appear in New Whiteland in 2020, as town officials wanted to provide an affordable option for families looking to spend the day together, Alspach said. Concerns over the pandemic forced the date to be rescheduled until 2022.

On the morning of Aug. 14, circus trucks will arrive at East Park in New Whiteland to set up the big top and all of the other aspects of the circus. One of Culpepper and Merriweather’s favorite traditions is opening up the grounds to the public during the tent raising, giving people a firsthand look of the work that goes into putting on the circus.

People can tour the setup, learn about circus life on the road, and see for themselves how the various animals included in the show are treated.

“It’s a cool way for them to see everything before they come out and buy a ticket,” Key said. “It’s also important that people see the animals and see that they’re healthy in good condition. We want them to see that everything we’re advertising is how it is.”

All of the circus’ animals are captive-bred and the majority are rescues. They are licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and their animals are seen by a veterinarian every 30 days.

All of the animals are trained using positive reinforcement and have the choice of which behaviors they feel like doing, Key said. Some days that means they do everything asked of them, and other days they feel like making their trainers look a little silly.

With everything that the circus offers, Key hopes that people who come to the show on Aug. 14 have an opportunity for some old-fashioned entertainment within their own communities.

“We go to smaller towns almost exclusively — most of the towns we go to are under population 5,000. It’s great to see people appreciate it; they’re genuinely thankful that we’ve come to their town. They didn’t have to travel for an hour to another city,” she said.