Joseph Bauer planned to retire from running, jump roping and juggling fire on his “wheel of thrills” when he was 50.
But at 56, the circus ringmaster and daredevil still is rotating on the massive contraption in front of live audiences nearly to the top of the four-story Tarzan Zerbini Circus tent, which this week stands in the parking lot of the Spokane Valley Mall.
“It’s hard when I’ve been doing it so long to stop,” said Bauer, who performs without a net.
He came to town last week along with 12 semitrucks and about 60 circus workers, including 20 performers, as the Tarzan Zerbini Circus performs as the 65th annual El Katif Shrine Circus. Shows run through Sunday evening, with proceeds benefiting the Shriners Children’s Spokane Hospital.
Bauer has performed in Spokane several times for the Shrine Circus in the past few decades.
“It’s a good life,” he told The Spokesman-Review in 1988 before the show opened at the Spokane Coliseum (also with him as ringmaster and performing on the “wheel of thrills”). “There’s probably no better high in the world than getting an audience so excited they scream.”
Bauer is the eighth generation of his family to star in the circus. This year marks his 50th on the stage.
He was with his family at a show at an amusement park in Osaka, Japan, when an official with the amusement park pointed at then-6-year-old Joseph and asked his dad, “What about him?” While Joseph had come along with the rest of the family, he wasn’t yet performing.
But his father, Joseph Bauer Sr., said his son was ready. They went onstage, and young Joseph did a handstand on his dad’s outstretched arm. The crowd cheered.
“When a person gets in front of a crowd and they’re accepting, that makes you want to go out and do it,” Bauer said under the tent early Thursday morning.
He soon became a regular part of the show, first performing with clowns and graduating to more serious stunts, like the towering 100-foot sway pole – his family’s specialty. He later rode a motorcycle on the high wire.
His parents, Joseph Bauer and Elizabeth (Nocks) Bauer, came from a long line of circus performers in Switzerland, and arrived in the United States in 1954, when they brought their high sway pole act, “the Nerveless Nocks,” to headline the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They were featured on the “Ed Sullivan Show” the same night as the Beatles’ second Ed Sullivan performance in 1964. Joseph Bauer Jr.’s cousins still are part of the Nerveless Nocks and recently appeared on “America’s Got Talent: Extreme.”
His father purchased the “wheel of thrills,” also called the “wheel of death,” about 35 years ago. There are other wheels of thrills out there at other circuses, but Bauer said his is the original invented by Clay Beckett, who received a patent for the “Occupant Propelled Amusement Device” in 1953.
“As an acrobatic apparatus, the device of this invention is adapted to be used by one or more human acrobats or by trained dogs, monkeys, seals and other animals,” according to the U.S. Patent.
In the 35 years Bauer has performed on the “wheel of thrills,” he has fallen a couple of times, resulting in “some surgeries, and all that.”
“Hopefully, God willing, you get up and you go to the doctor’s,” he said.
But mostly, Bauer masters the challenge. He’s performed on the circle all over the world and – on a windy day – on top of a 257-foot, 19-story building in Sarasota, Florida, (once the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey) where he lives when he’s not in a traveling circus.
The Spokane Shrine Circus features all human performers. The Tarzan Zerbini Circus brought horses for the show, but the Spokane Valley Mall declined to let them be used, Bauer said.
Among the performers are a hula hoop artist, a rope performer, a clown comedy act and a family of trapeze artists.
Jimmy Fornaciari, of Italy, performs three acts in the Spokane show. He works with lasers, is the “human slinky” and he sings opera in, let’s say, unusual positions – namely upside down.
He performed in circuses with his family as a child.
“Then I began to like opera,” he said. So he trained with a professional baritone singer about 25 years ago. The result was an act displaying strength and his voice, which he premiered in 2006.
“It took years to perfect,” he said.
Fornaciari said he doesn’t have to practice his slinky act, but the singing act requires rehearsal.
He is the third generation of his family to work in the circus. Among his siblings, however, only him and one brother, a clown, still perform. He has a daughter, he said, but she is unlikely to join the circus.
Still, he is not worried about the future of circuses, despite the demise in 2017 of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Fornaciari said he believes that circus failed because it didn’t adapt to changing audience tastes. And, he noted, Barnum & Bailey is slated to make a comeback in 2023.
Ticket sales for Tarzan Zerbini are good, Bauer said. From Spokane, it heads to the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Then it has a long tour scheduled across Canada, where it is branded the Royal Canadian Circus.
Bauer’s children have taken an interest in the circus.
Bauer’s wife, Claudia Bauer, performs on the trapeze – without a net – and assists him on the “wheel of thrills.” His 28-year-old daughter performs in circuses as an equestrian and aerialist. His 14-year-old son has started training to learn the “wheel of thrills,” using a harness.
He said he’d be honored if his son learns his specialty.
“I’d probably feel the same way my dad did. It’s inspiring. But again, safety first,” he said. “We’d know right away if he’s capable and prepared mentally and physically.”