EAST WENATCHEE — The show started with an explosion of action fit for a circus — hula hoopers, unicyclists, jugglers and aerialists on swinging ladders, all with circus music in the background.
From there, performers worked through well-choreographed acts that included trampolines, tumbling, air acrobatics and a tightrope in the grand finale. In the background, volunteers carefully and quickly set up each act to keep the show running like a well-oiled machine.
For 70 years, the Wenatchee Youth Circus has dazzled crowds near and far and drawn performers in from around the state. The four home shows in Eastmont Community Park this past weekend were no different.
Some, like Olivia McPherson, joined after watching the group perform in Renton for years as a child. McPherson is now also a member of the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University, one of only two collegiate circuses in the country. McPherson said she enrolled in the school partly because she could continue to perform.
Others, like Jennifer Ross Rodriguez, return to the valley yearly, even after moving to the west side of the state, so that her three kids can perform.
“The kids love it, and I love that it’s such a family-friendly event,” she said.
The show is the brainchild of Paul Pugh, aka Guppo the Clown, an English teacher who founded the Wenatchee Youth Circus in 1952, initially as a tumbling act. For years, Pugh dazzled crowds while mentoring generations of young performers.
The act has traveled throughout Washington and around the country.
After Pugh died in 2016, the show went on. Now, president Charlie Brown and other volunteers carry on his legacy.
“I’ve got it in my blood, and I just can’t get it out,” said Brown, who has helped train performers for around 27 years.
The show Saturday morning included around 25 performers in front of roughly 200 people.
“We let anybody come in,” Brown said.
Once someone joins as a performer, they often stick around. Trainer Mollea Ochoa performed for about 12 years, and including her time training, has been involved for nearly 30 years.
Brandon Brown, Charlie’s son, has assisted for 26 years, first as a performer for six years and now as a trainer for the past 20 years. With his kids currently performing, he said he wants them “to have the same opportunity that we had.”
“There’s no words,” he said. “It’s just incredible.”
The circus is a family affair for the Browns. In addition to Brandon and Charlie, Charlie’s wife Glenna is a co-treasurer and a 30-year volunteer. Brandon’s daughter Alexis performs swinging ladders, double lyra and single lyra, among other acts. Trainer Mollea Ochoa, Charlie’s daughter, has four children — Iziah, Izabella, Luka and Sofia — who perform.
After COVID restrictions canceled the 2020 season and several graduations, Charlie Brown estimated that about 85% of the performers are new to the program, each eager to learn. Following Saturday morning’s show and before a 7 p.m. nightcap, trainers and previous participants helped current performers work on various acts.
Brown said watching the kids improve yearly “brings tears to my eyes.” But learning a new act is just one aspect of the training.
“It’s not just doing the trick. It’s being a performer and doing the trick,” he said.
Brown said the kids also assist in the setup and takedown of the equipment and the other behind-the-scenes work. Brown also said the organization offers a unique experience that stands out on college and job applications.
Brown said the entire circus is one big group.
“It’s a family,” he said. “It’s a circus family.”