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Mar 13, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Direct your attention to the Triton College gymnasium, where housewives ride unicycles and teenagers soar on the trapeze.

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Direct your attention to the Triton College gymnasium, where housewives ride unicycles and teenagers soar on the trapeze. There’s a 3-year-old clown and a 75-year-old stilt walker.

And if you’ve ever felt the urge to run away and join the circus, then step right up. “You want to learn the tightrope?” asked Terry White, the fast-talking and wisecracking circus director, who on a recent night stood amid the controlled chaos of circus practice — unicycles whizzing past, jugglers tossing clubs, aerialists hanging upside down from the ceiling. “What about the trapeze? We have people who can get you up there and swinging.”

Welcome to the Triton Troupers, a one-ring circus that takes everyday people and teaches them to become tumblers and acrobats. The show is part of Triton College’s continuing education program, and for 37 years the evening classes have run twice a week from January through March, lending instruction on everything from triple flips to trampoline. At the end of the course, a group of your friends and neighbors — whose ranks include a chemist, a carpenter and a corporate comptroller — comes together to perform a homegrown version of the greatest show on earth.

This year’s spectacle opens Thursday and continues through Saturday. Just a few evenings ago, about 40 people gathered in the Triton gymnasium in west suburban River Grove for one of the final practices. On one side of the cavernous gymnasium, Kevin Haines — a mild-mannered accountant by day — walked nimbly across the high wire. And on the other side, Amy Riccio — a computer technician — was catapulted into the air like a human cannonball. Above them all, Eve Whittenburg, a 50-year-old retired hairdresser, performed aerial flips from a rope 20 feet above the gym floor. “It feels like flying,” said Whittenburg, a willowy woman dressed in a red leotard, her hair pulled back in a long braid. “I close my eyes, and I’m exactly in the moment. It makes me feel free.”

At a time when Cirque du Soleil has transformed the circus into a highfalutin experience, the Triton Troupers remain old school, with local talent, do-it-yourself costumes and $6 general-admission tickets. And while the craze for Cirque has helped spawn a small industry of circus stunt classes such as those at Evanston’s Actors Gymnasium and the Northfield-based Flying Gaonas, the Triton Troupers remain Chicagoland’s only community circus.

The history goes back to the 1970s when Jeff Austin, a national tumbling champion, joined Triton College as a health teacher and gymnastics coach. Through the 1950s and ’60s, Austin — who grew up in Urbana — had been among the top gymnasts in the country; in college he ranked first in the nation in tumbling and second in trampoline in NCAA Division I competition. Later, he served as president of the U.S. Trampoline and Tumbling Association and in 1973 coached the American amateur trampoline team to victory against the Russians in an international competition.

Cheap advertising

After retiring from the competitive circuit, Austin joined the staff at Triton and agreed to produce a variety show. Back then, the community college was a new institution, founded in 1964; the president of the college hoped that a circus show would provide inexpensive advertising.

The production started small, with 30 students staging a gymnastics exhibition — performing on the high bar, the balance beam and trampoline — before a modest audience that sat on the floor. But soon the troupe began to grow. Austin taught a circus stunts class, giving lessons on unicycling and juggling. He recruited his best students for the show and put signs around campus that urged people to “run away and join the circus.” By the late 1970s, 100 people were performing each year and the show was selling out the 2,000-seat gymnasium.

At first, the troupe was only open to students. But Austin decided early on to grant participants lifetime memberships. It was a tactical move that allowed him to retain his best performers. After all, he couldn’t teach a student to fly on the trapeze in just a few months. “If we lost talent, we would have gone downhill in a hurry,” recalled Austin, 76.

Every year at least a dozen alumni returned to perform their old acts and teach a crop of newcomers. There were spandex-clad women performing mock burlesque. And a comedic acrobatic act called the Dimwits. Austin added more spectacular stunts, including trapeze, tightrope and teeter board — a huge lever that shot people 15 feet in the air. Soon, there were indoor pyrotechnics, confetti cannons and fire-eating acts.

Eventually, classes were moved to the continuing education program and opened to the community. The troupe became much like an extended family. It produced at least 20 marriages. And those marriages produced at least a dozen children. In some families, three generations performed with the circus.

Ups and downs

Like any family, the circus went through ups and downs. In the early 1980s, Triton canceled its gymnastics program. Austin retired soon after and moved to Michigan. But the troupers hung on.

Rick Wright, a metals engineer who had been with the circus from the start, took over as director. And some performers even turned pro. Andy Head became a two-time national juggling champion. Eddie Cadena went on to walk the high wire with the Flying Wallendas.

In recent years, the ranks of the Triton Troupers have thinned, as longtime members moved away or had children. New recruits seem harder to come by. “People go home after work to sit and watch a movie or play video games,” lamented Rob Sokolick, 39, a chemist turned aerial artist. So that now, there are fewer than 50 members, down from a high of 100.

But the people who remain say they’re hooked. Kari Buckvold, 35, a mapmaker by day and trapeze artist by night said: “I love the height, and I love the speed. I love hearing the wind whistle in my ears. I think, ‘How could anyone not want to do this? How could anyone not think this is the coolest thing in the world?'”

Dave Moore, an insurance actuary who catches the aerialists, has suffered a broken nose, a broken ankle and countless sprains and bruises. But it was all worth it, he said. “When the lights are on and the music’s playing, you can feel the adrenaline. Getting out in front of the crowd, seeing people’s faces light up, there’s a big rush.”

All about the smiles

Marcia Baron, a comptroller who plays a clown, relishes the chance to shake off her corporate persona and assume a wackier role. “You’re a different person when you put on the makeup,” she said. “People don’t know who you are. You can joke, and you can be more open. You can make people smile.”

On Thursday night, they’ll be together, sharing the spotlight. They’ll flip through the air, wobble across the high wire and bounce on the trampoline. At the end of the show, everyone will take their bows and the Triton Troupers will go home. On Monday, they’ll return to their day jobs and blend back in with the rest of us.

After the show, “everyone goes their own way,” said White, 54, the current director, who in real life is a civil engineer for the Village of Hoffman Estates. “The first week back to work, it’s a withdrawal for me. You think, ‘Now what do I do?'” Then he starts planning for next year.

– – –

Under the ‘big top’

What: The Triton Troupers

When: 7 p.m. Thursday; 7 p.m. Friday; 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Robert M. Collins Center, 2000 N. 5th Ave.,

River Grove

Tickets: $6 at the door


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