The King – Alberto Marinelli on his life and what to do when your lion escapes from your circus

by Trevor Aung Than on October 19, 2012

This was an interview I did with the great Alberto Marinelli (far right in picture above, with Wagner in the middle and myself far left), a 3rd generation circus performer, whom I had the pleasure of working with and on at ZAiA. The interview was conducted on 19 Dec 2011 over a Sichuan-style lunch in Zhuhai, China.

TA – Trevor Aung Than
AM – Alberto Marinelli

Photos courtesy of Darin Basile

TA: I’m here with the famous Alberto Marinelli, we’ve come over to Zhuhai, China together today for a nice lunch and Alberto’s taken some time to answer some questions about his circus background. Let’s get started! Alberto, can you tell us a little about where you’re from and your background?

AM: Well I was born in Argentina. I come from a circus family. I spent the first 25 years of my life in South America and after that we moved the family to America. We’ve been there for the last 25 years or so.

TA: So you grew up in a circus environment?

AM: Yeah, my family: my brother, my father, my grandfather..we were all born and raised in the circus.

TA: Really? How far does it go back?

AM: It goes back 3 generations.

TA: Wow, that’s great. So growing up as a kid was it just something you were expected to do or was it something you only took up later in life?

AM: You know, when you’re brought up in circus it’s just normal. You want to be a circus performer because you’re brought up in that environment. Just like if both your parents are doctors, chances are you’re going to be a doctor too. You know, some kids are born into theatre families. But it doesn’t always have to be that way, but chances are high.

TA: Yes, that is true. At what age did you start training?

AM: I was around 8 (years old). Then I did some work when I was about 12 years, but you know, I didn’t really enjoy it much as a kid. I thought for a while there that I wouldn’t perform. It took a few years of training one thing, training another thing. It wasn’t till I was around 16 years old that I founded what I wanted to do, then it became more serious. In the beginning, I wasn’t really sure. Maybe what they were teaching me was the wrong thing…so you know…until I founded what I wanted to do, it became more clear and easy. And that was when my career took off.

TA: I see. So when you began training at 8 years old Alberto, what kinds of things did you train?

AM: Well you know when you’re young, you train the basics, getting flexible, being strong, working the whole body. One of the few things we started, at least with us, was hand balancing. Some trampoline, the things that give you a base, you know, and then from then on, then you can focus on other things.

TA: And you said you started working at 12, is that right?

AM: Yeah, I did some work when I was 12. I did some trapeze, and then we moved circuses and what I was doing was not required anymore. When I was young, in the circus, we moved circuses, you weren’t in the same circus forever. You stay 3 years in one circus and then…sometimes you stay in one place for a long time. So when I was working, then we moved to another show and in that show they didn’t need my anymore so I stopped working but kept training and my parents were still working. And then it became my turn later, but I kept doing other things at that time.

TA: And when you started working at 12, that was with your family circus?

AM: Yes, that’s right but we were working for other people, it was harder. Back then, things were a lot different to now. It was a hard time, everybody was working, conditions were not the best, so different to what you see and know now. Back then we were living in tents, there were not even wagons. You would just pack up your tent, not even any cars. It was just pack your tent, pack up everything you had and put it in a trunk and onto the trucks, jump onto a semi with your family and your kid, like a gypsy (laughs). It was rough.

(Break for lunch and sound check)

TA: So you’ve been involved with circus a long time Alberto, how long exactly?

AM: 49 years, before you were born (laughs).

TA: Yeah, MUCH before I was born! (laughing). I know we spoke about this before, but with both the South American circuses and the USA circuses you must have seen some pretty crazy stuff. Can you tell me a story about maybe something that sticks out in your mind?

AM: Yeah, well I seen, you know growing up in the circus, a lot of crazy things happen. Especially, many years back, the circus used to carry a lot of animals. The biggest stories always come from the animals. But that was back then you know, these days, animals are disappearing from the circus with (Cirque du) Soleil. But one of the things I remember, when I was young, I was watching the show and I was probably about, 17 at the time, and watching the show and the Lion trainer was walking the lions and back then, you know, as I mentioned before to you the safety requirements with the cages, well nobody would actually check. And if someone would be killed, or loose an arm because of the lion, or if the trainer was killed, well it was a bad day, there was not much you could do. So anyway, that day I was watching the show and the cages, well they weren’t the best cages around, and for some reason the lion got mad at the trainer and was running around the cage, and then he jumped..and he crashed into the cage and he broke the cage…and you know, in the ring there, in the cage there were like six or seven lions in the cage.

Normally, you know, these lions are born and raised in cages so they’re not from the wild, most of the lions in the circus are born in the circus, all they know is that cage, they’ve never been in the wild. We were in a town in Argentina, a small country town, and in Argentina there are a lot of horses and cows just in the fields back then. The circus that day it was pretty full and this lion just ripped the cage open, and two lions actually escaped. The other five lions just stayed in the cage, they were too scared, even though the cage was wide open, they just stayed. So the 2 lions left, it was pandemonium, people, running everywhere. But the two lions, they just walked out, they didn’t attack anybody, they just wanted to get out. And then there were people running and screaming everyone, and they were actually able to catch one of the lions, he was just outside the circus. People just surrounded him with chairs, and the lion got scared. But the other lion ran away to the countryside somewhere. So we all got in the truck, it was nighttime, so we were just using the lights from the truck. So finally we found him, the lion had actually killed a horse and was eating the horse, so that’s how we actually found him. It was at least, about 20 kilometres from where the circus was.

TA: Wow.

AM: So everyone from the circus was there, the police came and the owner of this horse was there….he was pretty mad (laughing).

TA: I can imagine!

AM: So the police were there, and they were ready to shoot him and the lion was just there eating this horse, he didn’t want to leave. So in the end, they got the cage from the circus – the one from the ring, and little by little they brought the cage to him.and in the end, he got into the cage, just like if he was at the circus. And the trainer was there, and he just went back into that cage.

TA: Wow, amazing.

AM: So it was wild back then.

TA: So things like that used to happen all the time?

AM: Yeah, back then in the circus we had 55 lions..imagine that..

TA: 55 lions!!

AM: Yeah, and those lions were there everyday, and everyday people would try to sneak in to see the lions, try to open the cage and look inside, and people would lose the top of their face, or loose one arm..

TA: Wow, I guess those times have long passed now.

AM: Yeah, thank god! Those were really…um…really not good times..I believe animals don’t belong in the circus.

TA: Yes.

AM: But you know back then it was normal. Back then if you didn’t have any animals (in your circus), you didn’t have anything decent. Today, things have changed a lot, you don’t need animals anymore. Like in America now, not many have animals anymore.

Alberto continues his fascinating story next week and how he recovered from a near career-ending accident to make it back onto the trapeze bar!!….

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