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Life under the big top

Aitkin woman looks back at her 19 years in the circus

For most children, spending a day at the circus was a big treat. For Sarah Chapman, of Aitkin, the circus was her life. She spent about 19 years under the big top, and it all started when she was just 12 years old.

“My mother grew up in Boy River, Minn., and left for warm Sarasota, Fla., in 1938,” said Chapman. “She traveled north for Minnesota summers the rest of her life.”

Sarah, along her brother and her sister, lived in Florida but would spend summers in Minnesota. This connection to Minnesota would eventually lead her back to the land of 10,000 lakes.

“We joined some of our 55 first cousins in Cass County’s forests, pastures and waterways,” she said. “The downside of my summer home was I thought the earth was always green. The upside was I loved Minnesota more than Florida.”

Sarasota, Fla., has the nation’s oldest youth circus, called Sailor Circus.

Sarah Chapman of Aitkin performs her balancing act in 1973. This is a black/white photo that was colorized. Contributed photo

“I joined at age 12 and did one show on a trapeze with five other girls,” said Chapman. “I learned my featured act, the balancing trapeze, practicing for four years at home on a rigging my father built. I had the drive to do something different and to do it well.”

In 1963, her senior year, Sarah performed in Sailor Circus on her balancing trapeze. Six years later, it was a featured act in Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“It was a ‘look Ma—no hands’ act with my feet doing the balancing,” she said.

During her five years in Sailor Circus, she practiced and performed about three months each year. It included try-outs, after-school practice and work duties on weekends. Performances under a bigtop were during Easter vacation. Sailor Circus recently became a nonprofit and now offers year-round activities in a large tent-like facility.

When Sarah moved up to Ringling Brothers, she was doing a little bit of everything.

“Besides my featured aerial act, I was an all-around performer and did production numbers, including riding elephants,” she said. “Occasionally I did the straight half of my famous husband’s clown numbers.”

Performing was a passion for Sarah. She considered it a fun and easy activity.

“At 19, I wasn’t ready to buckle down and finish my education so I joined a professional circus because it was easier than school. I thought I would excel in the circus, and I did.”

Sarah’s husband was Danny Chapman, the son of feather weight boxing champion Danny McCabe. Danny joined a circus family from Indiana to perform as top mounter in a perch pole act during the Depression. According to Sarah, he bluffed his way through education and was sent to Officer Candidate School before going overseas to Africa and North Italy during WWII. Sarah was 19 when they married. Danny was 52. “Danny became a successful aerialist before falling 55 feet in Brussels,” she said. “He turned to clowning and married me in 1965.”

Sarah, Danny and Mel Miller started Clown College in 1968.

“The concept for the free Clown College started in my living room one night. We brainstormed how to make 30 new clowns for a second Ringling unit,” she said.

The Clown College ran for 40 years.

“The next reunion is this November in Sarasota,” she said.

For 15 years, the Chapmans traveled with Ringling Bros., Shrine Circuses, King Brothers, Carson and Barnes, and Franzen Bros. Circus. Danny had three daughters from a previous relationship, and the pair had two children together, Ivy and Winston, who had their own parts in the circus.

A highlight in Sarah’s circus career was performing in Ringling’s 1970 Blue Unit 100th Anniversary show.

Sarah Chapman performing with Ringling Brothers in 1969. In the act, she would crouch down and lift the handkerchief with her mouth. Contributed photo

“Everything about that year was special, from working in Madison Square Garden, doing the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, my jeweled maharani spec dress and riding the elephant Siam in center ring. All that combined with the friendships gained from many talented showgirls and clowns make that year the best.”

But a career in the circus wasn’t always glamorous and fun.

“The Ringling Circus was like a factory,” she said. “I did six numbers per show, 13 shows weekly, 500 shows a season, for 11 months a year. They paid weekly, and there was no maternity leave when I had my son in 1972.”

It was a busy time for Sarah, and the responsibilities kept adding up.

“My circus career lacked ‘me time,’” she said. Sarah cooked all the meals, did laundry, sewed wardrobe, taught school to her daughter and even gave haircuts (to men only) as the show barber.

“I wanted a degree and took three correspondence courses during my six years with Ringing,” she said.

Early retirement from the circus came for Sarah in 1979 after she suffered from what she thought was a soft tissue strain. She found out later it was fibromyalgia. The Chapmans divorced about that time.

Sarah has been out of the circus business for a while now, and Ringling Brothers recently ended its run after 146 years of entertainment.

“I get a feeling of awe when I watch an act perform,” she said. “And I miss the smells, colors and music of the circus. To be honest I miss hearing applause because it tells me about the audience.”

Sarah moved to Remer, Minn., in 1992, after earning a B.A. in humanities studies from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. Her son was in the Army, and she wanted to live closer to family.

“I stayed 17 years as a substitute teacher, professional nanny, perennial grower, senior aide and PCA,” she said. “I married and divorced a logger from Palisade during this time. I retired in 2010 and tried living in Arkansas then Florida. I settled for four years in southwest Iowa, where my daughter and two grandchildren live.”

Sarah missed Minnesota’s woods, rivers and lakes, and decided to return to northern Minnesota. She now lives in Aitkin.

Following her circus days, Sarah has been able to enjoy more of her “me time.” One important part of her life that has developed over time has been her writing.

“I first started writing in 1987 in Green Bay. I wrote a cookbook called A Circus Girl’s Cookbook and then a novel. The cookbook is still going, but I did nothing with the novel.

In 2014, Sarah released a memoir about her days in the circus and her marriage to Danny called Balancing Act: Memoir of a Florida Youth.

“Each performer has a private life,” said Chapman. “My book is like peeking under the curtain and watching the circus when it’s not normally observed.”

Former circus performer Sarah Chapman today. Contributed photos

Sarah said the memoir focuses on family, education and the dark subject of domestic abuse. An underlying theme revolves around her spirituality.

Last year, Sarah participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and wrote a historical fiction sequel to her memoir.

“I joined Lake Superior Writers in 2000 and have been in a writers group ever since. I am co-facilitator of Aitkin Writers Group and look forward to the Brainerd Writers Alliance annual fall festival,” she said. “I joined Toastmasters in 2000 and quickly learned the difference between performing in the air in front of strangers compared to speaking at a lectern. Public speaking is challenging and rewarding.”

Sarah’s writing is either factual or something she called “a creative stream of consciousness” with a “quirky charm.” Some of her writings can be found in the Aitkin Age newspaper.

Sarah’s books are available through or directly from her. The cookbook is $10 and the memoir is $15 (includes postage). Her address is 230 First Ave. NE, Apartment 101, Aitkin, MN 56431.

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