Comic basketball act's return helps circus build upon tradition
It's an autumn tradition for the Chicago Bulls to go on an extended series of road games so that one of three ongoing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus tours can roll into the Chicago area for back-to-back engagements, first at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont (Nov. 1-11) and then at the United Center in Chicago (Nov. 20 through Dec. 1).
But local b-ball fans won't entirely miss out on the game since the unicycling basketball-playing King Charles Troupe is once again touring with the circus.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: "Built to Amaze!"
Tickets: $15-$25; $40 VIP tickets; $50-$60 front-row
Showtimes: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1 and 8; 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2 and 9; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3 and 10; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6; 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7; 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11
Showtimes: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Nov. 22 and 23; 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23 and 30; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24, and Dec. 1; 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26; 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 27; 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 29
"It's actually a choreographed game of comedy basketball on unicycles," said Kip Jones, a multiyear veteran and now the current leader of the King Charles Troupe. "So we're passing, we're dribbling, we're shooting hoops and even jumping off and doing these amazing dunks — the kind that you regularly see in the NBA."
The King Charles Troupe was the first all-African-American act employed by Feld Entertainment, the parent company that operates Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The troupe originally toured with the circus for 20 seasons starting in 1969, with a second generation returning in 1996 and now a third generation that rejoined in 2012.
The King Charles Troupe was incorporated into the "Red" circus tour "Built to Amaze!" The visual and storytelling concept is to give audiences a sense of how a circus is constructed from the blueprint stage to a fully realized flashy theatrical spectacle involving more than 110 performers from 17 different countries along with 95 exotic and domestic animals.
New for this 143rd circus edition is the Russian married couple Alex and Irina Emelin, who are responsible for a comical magical act involving exotic animals and 16 black-and-white poodles. Also new are the Tower Tumblers, competitive Ukrainian aerial athletes who can launch themselves from trampolines to scale, repel and pass through a three-story-high translucent tower.
But longtime circus fans will be pleased to see the return of The King Charles Troupe, which traces its origins back to 1918. That's when a young Jerry King sneaked into a circus performance in Tampa, Fla., and became fascinated with the unicyclist on a high wire.
The memory stuck with King so, when he started a family in the South Bronx in New York, he trained his son, Charles, and many of his friends to ride unicycles in the halls of their apartment buildings and the city parks.
"(Jerry King) was concerned about a lot of social evils that were surrounding the kids in the neighborhood, so he utilized the unicycle as a tool to help teach discipline and build character," Jones said.
One afternoon the troupe was practicing and a basketball rolled over from a nearby basketball court. One of the guys picked it up, shot it and made the hoop. Jones said that's how basketball became incorporated into the act.
The King Charles Troupe got its first break with Feld Entertainment in 1968, when it was hired to be a preshow entertainment for the circus outside of Madison Square Garden in New York. The audience response was so ecstatic that producer Irvin Feld hired the troupe to be a part of the show inside.
Though the King Charles Troupe, now based out of Las Vegas, has had its ups and downs through the years, the performers involved in the current incarnation are grateful to be back with Feld Entertainment, which itself is also seeing a third generation of producing leadership by Irvin Feld's granddaughters, Nicole and Alana.
"We've been received by the audience as well as the staff at Feld Entertainment with open arms," Jones said. "They have expressed their gratitude that we rejoined the circus, and we feel humbled to carry on the legacy of the King Charles Troupe."
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