WILKES-BARRE — Clowns, elephants, tigers, bears, acrobats and protesters — the circus is back in town.
While dedicated animal rights activists stood out in the rain and peacefully protested outside, the 64th Irem Shrine Circus got under way inside Monday afternoon in the 109th Field Artillery Armory before a packed house of painted-faced, cotton candy-eating children and hundreds of others.
“We usually come here every year,” said Maria Coppola of Mountain Top Kids Day Care Center. “They love it here.”
Coppola and her sister, Velia, brought about 32 children to the first performance of the week-long circus. The kids were slurping slushies, wearing cotton candy on their faces and sporting face-painted designs.
“I want to see the elephants,” one little girl yelled.
“I like the tigers,” a little boy said.
Silvie Pomichter, president of Voice of the Animals, likes tigers and elephants and all animals — just not in the circus. Pomichter and about five of her group’s members — including a pink and gray elephant (Judy Popso) — held signs and passed out literature to those who would take it. The signs said: “Animals don’t belong in circuses” and “Circus animals are starved, beaten and chained.” Popso’s sign just asked people to “Be an elefriend.”
Pomichter said she has been protesting for 28 years. She said sometimes it gets frustrating, but sometimes the group’s message gets through and people decide not to attend the circus.
“People are so brainwashed,” she said. “They think circus animals act the way they do in their natural environment. It just isn’t true.”
Despite the protest, attendance was near capacity, said Noel Conrad, Irem’s circus chairman.
“It looks good for the whole week,” he said.
Next to Conrad was Billy Martin, the Hanneford Circus ringmaster and director who is in his 36th year of hosting the show.
“Every performance is opening night,” he said. “It’s true family fun. We think of it as our family entertaining your family.”
The “star-studded” lineup of performers listed in the program had circus-like names with superlatives attached, including:
• Terrific Tigers of Brunon Blaszak
• Aerial Excellence — Angela on the High Trapeze
• Amazing Animal Actors — Castle’s Performing Bears
• Wheel of Destiny — The Sensational Duo Fernandes
• Biggest Stars of the Circus — Here Come the Elephants
• Three-Ring Bravado — A Juggling Jamboree
Boo Boo the Clown (Bill Bookwalter) was walking around the second floor of the armory, stopping for pictures with children and families — something he has been doing since 1996 for the Irem Shrine. Boo Boo wore a button that read “I’m so broke, I can’t even pay attention.”
“I love doing this,” he said. “I don’t ever have to be serious. I can be a kid at heart and enjoy making them laugh.”
Hundreds of volunteers served food, sold programs, ushered people to their seats and did whatever necessary to make the circus a success and, most of all, fun.
Protesters such as Pomichter don’t see it that way.
“Cruelty is not entertainment,” said a brochure being passed out.
In 2010, an elephant named Dumbo killed its handler at the Hamid Circus at the armory.
Pomichter’s group distributed literature citing several incidents of alleged circus-animal abuse.
But for those inside, the sights, smells and tastes of the circus made for plenty of oohs and ahhs on this Monday afternoon.