When he was in his 20s, Richard Curtis pursued the old childhood dream of running away with the circus.
After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during Desert Storm and Desert Shield, he returned to the United States, where he went to college and managed a bar.
But the circus came to town and he decided to audition. It took place in the back of a Chinese restaurant that had karaoke. He sang “Mack the Knife.” He got the job.
Today, he’s 44 and ringmaster of the Tarzan Zerbini Circus – El Katif Shriners will present its 60th annual Shrine Circus opening today in the parking lot of the Spokane Valley Mall.
“I like the ambiance,” Curtis said of the show, which is under a big top, rather than inside an arena. The smaller venue brings the show closer to the audience.
There is seating for about 2,800 people under the 55-foot tent which took two days to assemble, along with putting in the interior lights and sound system.
This year’s show includes a teeterboard performance by the Dragomir Troupe from Romania. Judit and Jurgen Nerger from Germany perform an expanded tiger act featuring 14 cats. There are trapeze artists and bareback horse acts, elephants and clowns.
The circus is the largest fundraiser for the El Katif Shriners. Luke Hoene, the advertising director for the Shrine Circus, said the funds raised are for the club, which keeps the money local and funds the activities the Shriners do to support the hospital.
“It’s a tradition,” Hoene said. “More importantly, it’s something the children love.”
The Shriners also participate in the show. The Shrine clowns and animals will be working the crowd before performances, and Shriners will sell tickets.
Hoene said he likes the circus under the big top, for three reasons: The Shriners get a cheaper venue to host the show; there is more flexibility to bring the circus to other locations like Moses Lake and Pasco; and the farthest seat away from the action is about 60 feet, making for a more intimate performance.
This is the 251st year the Zerbini family has been presenting a circus, which began in Italy and moved to the United States in 1961. Curtis’ wife, Kimberly, is a ninth-generation Zerbini circus performer. She retired from the trapeze act and now trains dogs for the circus. The Curtis children, ages 21, 15 and 12, grew up with the circus and also perform.
Curtis said his children do school work online, allowing them to travel with the show, which is on the road about 30 weeks a year.
He likes the schedule and pace of traveling with the circus.
“You’re not stressed,” he said. “You move in, set up, roll into shows and tear it down.”