To be a priest, you don’t have to be a clown,” says Nick Weber, 34, a Jesuit priest since 1970. Smearing on greasepaint, he adds: “To be a clown, you don’t have to be a priest.” Finally, putting his act and his faith together, Father Weber concludes: “But to be me, you have to be both priest and clown.”
And so, indeed, he is, the producer and principal attraction of the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter Ring Sidewalk Circus, based in Santa Clara, Calif.
From August through May every year, he and two student assistants take “the world’s smallest circus” to more than 100 cities, traveling in a camper jammed with props, Jingles the poodle, an Asian pheasant, a fox from the Arctic Circle and Penelope, a spider monkey. The circus plays shopping centers, Indian reservations, even mental hospitals—where one patient was heard to yelp delightedly: “They’re crazier than we are.”
The show is pure slapstick fun, interspersed with low-key morality tales and a few fleeting messages of faith. “I make an art of not laying my formal religious trip on people,” Weber says (instructing his audience: “You don’t have to call me Father”). But the show’s purpose is “pre-evangelical—to soften up people to accept the surprise that God is present. God is a free spirit. He must be preached everywhere. In the temple, God is no longer a surprise.”
After a performance, Weber usually passes the hat—the circus receives no funds from the church—and then sponges bed and board from a local family. To his mind, poverty is a creative force. “I’m allergic to materialism. This way, you’re living sort of naked.”
As a boy, Weber never missed a circus or carnival that rolled into his home town of Yuba City, Calif., and he learned his first magic tricks from an itinerant priest. Young Nick put on shows in his backyard, wowing neighborhood kids with feats on the balance pole and tightwire. He even taught himself fire-eating in the privacy of his family’s garage. And throughout his seminary training, Weber studied drama along with theology and won master’s degrees in both.
As a Jesuit he taught high school English and acting until the idea of the circus popped into his head. At first, Weber played alone, calling himself “Sam’s Sidewalk Show” and refining the acts which became the Royal Lichtenstein Circus (a name he picked just so it would be easily remembered).
During his wanderings, Weber has frequent run-ins with police, who tend to be firmly unconvinced that the shaggy, uncollared entertainer is really a priest. He has a different problem with young, somber Jesus freaks who accuse him of “doing the work of the devil.” So do some of his fellow Jesuits, although the order has given his special calling its full blessing.
A nun once wrote Weber asking: how could he reconcile his priestly ministry with the circus? “What she didn’t understand,” he explains, “is that the circus is my ministry.”