Step right up, folks. Don’t be shy. Step right up to this not-so-Big Top and go back in time. Smell the sawdust and the animals, taste the cotton candy and high-wire excitement, listen to the musical clowns playing various instruments variously. Now here’s the main attraction. She’s just 3 years old and carries a pink parasol. All ears and wrinkled knees, the star of our show is Flora, the adorable baby elephant.
Welcome to the single-ring Circus Flora. Based on the first traveling circus that ever caravaned through the U.S., in the early 1800s, Circus Flora resembles a certain investment house in that it does things the old-fashioned way. The one-ring layout seats 1,500 people, but no one is more than 40 feet from the action. Folks in the first few rows get dusted with sawdust from the horses’ hooves and leave with wood chips in their hair.
The man behind this menagerie from Memory Lane is savvy circus producer, promoter and enthusiast, 47-year-old Ivor David Balding. The son of a British polo player who came to the U.S. to train horses, Balding grew up on Long Island. He discovered circus life in the time-honored manner: He ran away and joined one. Balding dropped out of Harvard during his freshman year and signed on with a circus in Paris as an electrician. Even a successful stint as a Broadway producer in the 1960s didn’t get the circus out of his blood.
A European tour with famous circus man and safari park creator Jimmy Chipperfield prompted Balding to answer his wild calling. “Being in the circus, being with the animals, I loved it,” he says, “and I didn’t have to wear a tie.” After co-producing the Big Apple Circus in New York in 1980, Balding began collecting animals. He also knew enough talent in the business to flesh out a show. Still, the heart was missing.
Then came Flora. Named after an elephant in the Babar books, she was orphaned by poachers in Kenya when she was only a year old. Balding adopted her, flew her to the U.S., built his show around her and named his circus after her. In return, she is working hard to expand her repertoire. She is now learning to paint, throw a baseball and play the harmonica.
The Circus Flora is taking Balding from Charleston, S.C. to Saratoga, N.Y. and Denver this summer. Now divorced and living in Camden, S.C. when he’s not on the road, Balding is a happy man who has his priorities straight. “You can’t have a circus without an elephant, a horse, a clown and a pretty girl,” he says. “And that’s the order of importance.”