Ringmaster Chuck refers to members of the Kassaev Cossack Troupe as ’his cavalry.’ The riders’ feats of dexterity have roots that go back to the skills of warrior horsemen who once guarded the borders of 15th-century Russia and Poland.courtesy photo
The tigers weigh upward of 700 pounds, but Daniel Raffo has raised some of them since they were babies, small enough to be cradled in a human’s arms.courtesy photos
When the ringmaster is in charge, nimble circus folks ride horses just about every way except sitting in the saddle. You’ll see them standing on horses’ backs, sliding under their bellies and jumping off and on in mid-gallop.
When that other fellow is in charge, you’ll see ponies pulling a cartful of goats. That’s his cavalry.
When the ringmaster is running The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, performers will dangle from the ceiling – twining their graceful limbs around a curtain, perhaps, or sliding through metal hoops or even hanging by their hair.
When the ringmaster’s rival tries to steal the show, you might see a child blowing bubbles or a gaggle of clowns imitating penguins or … well, you get the idea. It’s cute stuff, but not exactly the kind of elephant march or tiger act that makes the crowds go wild. That all comes later.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Over the Top” show will be at the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township for seven performances from Thursday through June 1, and, thanks to a preview in Philadelphia, we can tell you the circus has a storyline that centers on the ringmaster’s top hat.
Whenever a white-faced clown named Tom manages to steal it, the spotlight focuses on something simple, like Tom climbing the outside of a large metal ball.
Whenever Ringmaster Chuck gets his hat back, the action looms larger and flashier. Maybe there are seven motorcyclists zooming around inside that large metal ball. Or maybe tiger trainer Daniel Raffo is urging his 700-pound charges to sit up or lie down on command.
After a morning performance in Philadelphia last month, Raffo conducted a training session with his tigers inside a custom-made cage of steel mesh.
“Sit up, sit up. Up, up, up, sil vous plais,” he urged one, offering it a piece of raw meat on a stick as a reward.
“Nose up. Nose up,” he said. “Bravo.”
“Simba, roll over … good boy.”
After the brief session, helpers led the tigers away, one by one, through a tunnel of cages, and Raffo spent a few moments answering questions from reporters.
Has he raised any of the tigers?
Yes, he said, using his hands to indicate the size of a small kitten. “Since they were babies.”
What kind of meat does he feed them?
“Cow, chicken,” he said.
A fifth-generation circus performer, Raffo began as an acrobat, juggler and high-wire artist in his family’s circus in Uruguay. By 13, he was presenting tigers, lions, horses and elephants.
He talks to his animals in a mix of languages and considers them “part of the family.”
“Everything we do together is based on trust, respect and positive reinforcement,” said Raffo, who believes the tigers enjoy the spotlight. “It is one of the best moments for us. We have the opportunity to show people the beauty of these animals and the wonderful character that they have.”
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, ‘Over the Top.’
Where: Wachovia Arena, 255 Highland Park Blvd., Wilkes-Barre Township.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday and May 30; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. May 31 and 1 and 5 p.m. June 1
One hour earlier: Come and meet the animals and performers during the pre-show.
Tickets: 970-7600 or wachoviaarena.com
“Everything we do together is based on trust, respect and positive reinforcement.”