Snakes, stunts part of circus delight

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 5, 1999

Children barely noticed the sweltering heat inside Natchez’s National Guard Armory, which on Sunday afternoon served as the big top for the Royal American Circus.

Instead, their eyes were trained upon packs of llamas and pygmy ponies prancing around the ring.

They clapped and cheered as Miss Catherine, donned in a black cape and suspended in mid-air, twirled as gracefully as a skater on ice.

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With a schedule that has them doing two shows a day from Jan. 12 to Oct. 31 – each day in a new town – these are scenes the Sarasota, Fla.-based circus will have repeated 596 times by the time this year’s season ends.

But if Sunday is any indication, the audience’s reactions just might make it worth it.

Onlookers gasped and squealed as snake handlers Ron Dykes and Bela Tarbak loaded giant pythons from trunks onto their shoulders, parading them around for all to see. The sight of the slithery serpents caused more than one parent to head for the farthest corner of the building.

But Angela Wright, a wiry pre-teen girl picked from the audience, remained undaunted as she was handed a spear and donned a ceremonial witch doctor costume – then was given a python to drape over her shoulders for a photograph.

At least, she appeared undaunted. &uot;It was pretty scary,&uot; Wright said, shivering at the afterthought. But she liked the idea of being the center of attention and said she will show off her souvenir photo at school.

Others gasped and burst into applause as Julio Piccolo, using only his feet, balanced daughter Corrina, then flipped her 18 straight times in the air.

It seemed that every child had their favorite act. For Alexa Mallory, there with family and friends, it was the gymnastics team.

&uot;And there an act where a clown had a jump rope and another clown took it away from him and he cried that was funny,&uot;&160;Pandora White said. &uot;Water squirted out of his eyes,&uot;&160;a nearby boy said, laughing.

After the crowd was gone, some of the same performers that had hung from the ceiling, guided the ponies and made children laugh were picking up popcorn boxes and wisps of cotton candy from the old wooden bleachers.

And ringmaster Phil Chandler reflected on the day.

&uot;It wasn’t as big a crowd as we usually have, but it is a holiday weekend, so I’m surprised we had any,&uot; he said, listening to the faint laughter of children outside. &uot;It was a good day.&uot;