Home Arts Book Review Rob Mermin’s Life in Circus From a madcap traveling circus in...

Rob Mermin’s Life in Circus
From a madcap traveling circus in Wales to founding Circus Smirkus in Vermont

Above, Rob Mermin, as Clown Robin, is shown in front of a Circus Benneweis poster in Copenhagen in 1973. Benneweis was one of the professional European circuses Mermin was part of before founding Circus Smirkus. Photo courtesy of Rootstock Publishing.
A few years into his circus career and performing at the prestigious Circus Benneweis in Copenhagen, Clown Robin had learned to expect surprises, was adept at improvising when things went wrong, and understood about putting “plants” in the audience. But when “a half dozen men in black suits, with necks as thick as bulls” jumped into the ring, karate-chopped the rubber gun out of his hand, wrestled him to the ground and pinned his arms behind him, and the stunned audience wondered if it was part of the act, even he didn’t know what was going on.

Clown Robin, better known as Rob Mermin, and two other clowns were performing a bank robber gag, and the hullabaloo started when he pulled out his “clearly fake rubber gun.” It turns out that the exiled royal family of Greece — and its security detail — were in the audience, and we all know that no one messes with big men in black suits. Afterwards, Mermin says, the ex-king graciously apologized to the clowns.

Mermin’s delightful new book, “Circle of Sawdust: A Circus Memoir of Mud, Myth, Mirth, Mayhem, and Magic” (Rootstock Publishing, 2024) tells how, as a child, Mermin wanted to join a traveling circus to make children laugh, and later, he dreamed of starting his own circus.

Both dreams came true: in 1969, he ran off to join a circus, and 20 years later, after studying with the legendary mime, Marcel Marceau (who became Mermin’s lifelong friend and mentor), and working in several circuses in Europe, he founded Circus Smirkus, based in Greensboro.

Mermin’s first adventure was in Wales with the Hoffman Circus, “a throwback to the traveling mud shows of a century past.”

“They had no artistic sensibility and no control over their animals and no sense of style or rapport with audiences. They were outrageous. But they kept the show on the road, no minor feat. And they were a family, working and struggling together. You had to like them for who they were, in their own way…. I learned a great deal of how not to do things from these guys.”

Mermin kept seeking new adventures in the circus world, taking chances and moving forward. Several times he went to a new place without a job or money, anticipating that somehow things would work out. He always found good in situations and in people, they clearly liked him, and he regularly expresses his gratitude for those who helped him along the way. His next adventure was in Copenhagen.

“In three years with Benneweis, I watched and studied the dozens of world-class acts that came to the building. I witnessed the artistry, style, and personalities of traditional circus professionals at the top of their game. Aside from their highly disciplined work ethic, competence, and generosity, a sense of play and humor was always in evidence.”

Future experiences took him to wrangle mules in Sweden and to become a television star in Denmark. Actually, he says that Rufus, his adorable and smart terrier who understood how to mime, was the star, and he was the sidekick.

Mermin’s crowning achievement was founding Circus Smirkus, the unique summer camp in which youths learn circus skills and then tour New England as the only tent-traveling youth circus in the United States. It is a life-changing experience for many participants, and a joy for the 42,000 people who attend each season. Most of this book, however, is about what came before Circus Smirkus, how Mermin got there.

In this especially stressful and divisive time, “Circle of Sawdust” (the title refers to what was left when traditional traveling circuses pulled up stakes and moved on), is a charming, upbeat reminder that there is a lot of good in the world. Mermin loves people, the circus, and making people laugh, as one chapter title emphasizes — Happily Ever Laughter. He brings out and finds the best in people: His anecdotes are effective antidotes for the daily news.

Black-and-white photos, old circus posters, and Karen E. Gersch’s simple, attractive illustrations, compliment Mermin’s personal stories, as do his many accounts of circus history and legend. He takes us behind tent walls, into the ring, and into caravans to bring circus past and present to life.

When my daughters were small, I always looked forward to going to Circus Smirkus; with them grown and my grandchildren not living nearby, I have missed it. Last summer, I went with three friends — none of us under 60 — and we had a great time. This summer, I’ll be sending my grandsons’ parents the Circus Smirkus tour schedule before they schedule their visit to Vermont. Both Circus Smirkus and Rob Mermin are Vermont treasures.

The “Circle of Sawdust” will be launched in the Hayes Room at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, Wednesday, May 29, at 6:30 p.m. Books will be available for signing and purchase.