- November 12, 2021
The Venardos Circus was born from a dream.
The first time former Ringling Bros. Ringmaster Kevin Venardos tried to sell tickets at an event for his own circus was in 2016 in Washington. At the time, the only tent he had was a small stretch of material measuring 10 feet by 20 feet.
“It was a little frame tent, and the artists would hide in it, and we put a wood ring on the outside in front, and we performed out there,” Venardos said. “People sat on hay bails. I had some pieces of side wall, and I strung up cables around the performance area to create a kind of walled in space. The thing is, that’s all I had at that time. I didn’t have money for marketing. I just had a dream and a few crazy friends who were willing to come with me.”
Now, the “Little Circus That Could” travels across the country to perform for thousands. The circus has grown into a living example of the power of dreams, reinventing the American circus tradition for a new generation and bringing joy to people everywhere.
And through Dec. 11, the Venardos Circus will be right here in West Orange.
Venardos, 47, was born in Maryland but spent the majority of his younger years in New Jersey.
He grew up watching and learning from his father, Lane Venardos, a beloved producer and executive with CBS News for 30 years.
“I watched my dad living this incredible career where it felt like he was telling the story of the world and like somehow I was part of it, because my dad was so integral to telling that story,” Venardos said.
Kevin Venardos studied musical theater, and after being out of school for a few years, he struggled in New York as he tried to pursue his dream of becoming an actor on Broadway. He auditioned at a multitude of openings while also working two jobs catering and waiting tables.
One of the auditions was for a circus role with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
At 22, Kevin Venardos became one of the youngest ringmasters in the history of the circus.
His father was thrilled and joined him on the mile-long circus train, which ran on the world’s largest privately owned railroad, an important detail that tied the family together.
The pair loved trains — they spent much of their respective childhoods building HO-gauge model railroads.
Lane Venardos died in 2011, at 67, and Kevin Venardos left the circus soon after.
A CIRCUS DREAM
After working at a couple of different shows following the close of the Ringling circus, Kevin Venardos realized his head was in the wrong place.
“I made a bunch of mistakes and had some really low points in life — from my own decisions — that were really detrimental to me and to my family,” he said. “After having experienced Ringling and feeling like I was a subculture star, I then discovered that me being there was not because of me, it was a huge team of people who had been conspiring to build something, and I was resting on their shoulders the whole time.”
The young ringmaster experienced bankruptcy, divorce and was even homeless for a short period of time.
“That was absolutely necessary it turns out, because that’s when I started to realize how grateful I should be for the opportunity to go after what I want, especially when you’ve lost everything and you’re still alive,” he said. “You have nothing to lose, so for me, when those situations happened, instead of shrinking, there’s this part of me that is willful and a fire that comes back and says, ‘Oh yes I can, and let me show you.’”
The reminder of the importance of teamwork has stayed with Kevin Venardos ever since.
The circus employs about 20 people with 15 members on the ground and the rest in other states with jobs such as permitting or digital marketing. The team includes an operations director, two stagehands, a concessions manager, two concessions hands and seven artists.
Kevin Venardos said all performers have a task before the show. For example, the aerialist scans tickets, the acrobatic team ushers people to their seats and the clown sells toys.
The ringmaster said he has noticed people appreciate the experience and the sense of teamwork showcased through the tasks. It also lets the attendees know the performers are only human and although they have incredible talents, they have all been through different experiences and have different opinions — but are ultimately family.
The talent group includes a young woman from Ethiopia who does a foot-juggling act and a hula-hoop act, an aerialist from Cuba, a couple who do a hand-to-hand balancing act and a young man who is a comedian.
“I, by myself, am not capable of doing any of this stuff, and also it wouldn’t be worth anything if it was just for me,” Kevin Venardos said. “This whole circus only exists because a team of people, who are all doing something they believe in, are working together to make it live and breathe.”
Although the circus started with one 28-foot box truck, the team now travels with three vehicles, including a recently bought bunk house trailer, a concessions trailer and a semi-trailer. Employees drive their pick-up trucks and pull their own portable homes behind.
In the beginning, the circus frequented its two biggest locations, St. Augustine and Tacoma, Washington, which are about 3,000 miles apart. Now, the circus has built a tour in an attempt to connect the two cities.
The circus travels to about 16 venues during 40 weeks of travel, including stops in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Kentucky, Alabama and North Carolina.
The circus did not find its way to West Orange until 2018.
Although the circus has faced many challenges along the way, Kevin Venardos knew he wanted to give people direct access to the show.
“I wanted to somehow get a price for a ticket that is reasonable into the hands of actual people and have them decide whether they want us around or not,” he said. “The Winter Garden area is beautiful, and it has been one of the anchor communities that has truly made everything possible.”
Kevin Venardos said he often searches for smaller spaces for the circus where it would not be a nuisance. His goal is to use the circus to help bring people to smaller towns and help small businesses thrive.
“Boyd Development, it turns out they are just an extraordinary family, and they have a marketing team here who finds events and cool experiences for people in the area that build community, raise the value of the homes in the area, improve the business of the retail spaces and encourage investment,” he said. “To think that Boyd Development and Hamlin believed in us at that very early moment in our story … years later planting those sweaty, painful seeds of love and long hard-working hours, I now feel like the community that is here knows about us and cares about the dream that we are living. So they come back, and every one of those people has put a brick into building this house.”
The ringmaster said 30% to 40% of sales come from people who have been to see the circus before or who have heard about it from friends and family.
“If you get a community of people to believe in your dream with you, such that it becomes something that they take ownership of, it becomes a tradition for them,” Kevin Venardos said. “What happens on the stage, what it represents, more than just a circus act, it’s a living example of the power of dreams.”
In the future, Kevin Venardos said there is a distinct possibility there may be another unit of the circus created.
The team also is planning on purchasing a new tent and retiring the current one next year. Kevin Venardos is working with Canobbio Textile Engineering in Italy, known for making some of the best circus tents in the world.
In addition, next year the circus will have risers, improved lighting and an additional trailer that will carry the new tent.
As far as future plans, Kevin Venardos said he wants to continue inspiring people to live their own dreams but also to amaze, delight and, most of all, touch the hearts of all who enter the tent.
“We’re going to keep showing this to people,” he said. “It might be a little girl or a little boy, or it might be a fully grown boy or girl, who are having a really tough time in their life right now. If they see that this thing is still out there traveling across the country, that it reminds them that it is never too late for them to move in that direction of the thing that they believe in and love. You never know the things that will stay with people when you live with that kind of message in your heart. I hope they take away a happy memory that is inspirational, because the circus was a dream I never knew I had but came true.”