Paul Binder is truly a ringleader. In his role as the Founder and Artistic Director of the Big Apple Circus, Paul made his way from working with legends like Merv Griffin and Julia Child to juggling in Europe and then founding one of the most popular circuses of all time. In an exclusive interview, Paul spoke to us about following your passions no matter what, writing his autobiography, and why it’s good to smush your work life and family life together.
Paul, what was the impetus for writing the book?
Because of this crazy life I chose, people had asked me for years to write this book. But who had time to write, with two shows a day, sometimes 7 days a week? When I finally stepped out of the ring, I figured now was the time. It went through a lot of incarnations. We told the stories, which were fun. I had a ball writing it; I am not a writer by trade, so it was sweat!
It’s great to save those stories for your kids.
Writing it down stimulated a lot of thoughts, because it was a wacky life. What drew me into the circus in the first place was that circus artists are an amazing group of people. No matter what else goes on, they have this passion for “the show must go on”; it’s a very tough life. They’re traveling all the time. I first discovered this when I was living in Europe and then brought it back here.
The spirit that they have, that can-do spirit, is what most attracted me to them. They speak to that part of us that gets discouraged, that goes into despair, and lifts them out of it.
What has the response been to the book?
It’s been fabulous. It didn’t hurt that I worked here in the U.S., in TV, for famous people. I worked for Merv Griffin and Julia Child. She was such an inspiration, not only for her passion for what she did, but this feeling of, “I want everyone to know about this,” and sense of inclusion, and she was a great manager of people. Everyone who worked for her loved working for her. It didn’t hurt that we got to eat the food! She was really an example of true leadership and she was always interested in the people who were working for her. “What’s your favorite television show?” “How old are your kids?” I learned an enormous amount from her. It appealed to me to work that way and I followed that influence. And she was two inches taller than I was, so when she hugged me, I was hugged! [laughs]
My first day on the job as the floor manager at The French Chef, I’m not even 22 years old yet. I was on headsets, and the director in the truck downstairs, yelled into my headset, “Tell her she’s sweating, Paul!” So I wrote on a pad, “Perspiration” and held it up to the camera. She takes a dishcloth, dabs her brow, and I count her down. After we’re done, she comes up to me, engulfs me in a huge hug and says, “Paul, where I come from, they call it sweat!” [laughs] She taught me great lessons in management and passion. I’ve always had a passion for what I’ve done, but when you encounter someone with passion and you see the success they have with trusting their passion, it’s incredible.
Merv was that way as well. A very passionate man. I got my graduate degree and I got introduced to him, and then I was working for him.
How did working for them lead to what would become the Big Apple Circus?
I got an audition for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, using circus skills as part of our technique, which led me to a juggling act, which then took me on a trip across Europe. I was recruited into a circus in France. One thing leads to the next. When you trust that the emotional honesty of what you’re looking to get involved in, it’s not always easy, but it always makes life exciting.
I LOVE that. “The emotional honesty.” That’s powerful.
Absolutely so. I don’t think I have a lock on that; something appeared in my vision and I would find something, polish it off, and then see what would happen. That’s the magical image of polishing the lantern, and poof, there’s the genie. But that’s the way it happened. Do I feel lucky? Oh, you bet. Each step, something opened and flowered.
I think everyone has a purpose and a path to be on. When you’re not on the right path, you’ll feel that things aren’t right, but somehow, you get brought back onto your path.
That’s right. But you need to have faith. There are any number of distractions. After everything I did, people would say, “That’s great, but what did your mother think?” [laughs] I have two Ivy League degrees; I went to Dartmouth and I have a Master’s degree from Columbia.
“But what are you doing with them? You’re juggling!” [laughs][laughs] That’s right! She thought I was out of my mind…and she was right. Not crazy, but out of my mind, not in a family mindset. I think there’s a lesson in that, a very hard lesson. The family has a reason for being, but you have to find your own; you have to find your own path. I will say this: She died proud of me, and that was very important to me.
What was it like for your kids growing up in that kind of environment?
It’s interesting because it’s a double-edged sword. First of all, they were in an environment, a 19th century environment; they were not separated from their parents, we worked together, like on farms or maritime economies. So we had a great deal of contact with our kids and influence of kids and there was a great community of people whom they felt comfortable with. They could knock on any one of 25-30 doors, and they would be welcome. That was very attractive. And we made sure that they had excellent educations; they went to Ivy League colleges. But the difficult part was that they didn’t have enough peers, particularly my son. He graduated from Harvard and my daughter graduated from Barnard.
It’s interesting that you say that because in the past 20 years or so work life and family life have been separated. Now, you have to take the two and smush them together.
I’m good at smushing. I’ve spent my whole life smushing! [laughs] But I truly believe that’s one of the puzzles of our time that the ancient cultures didn’t have that dichotomy. My kids were lucky to grow up that way, but still, my son didn’t have peers his own age. Overall, though, it’s an interesting way to raise kids.
What was it like to step out of the ring?
Going into the ring and performing—your whole day was devoted to that. People think that circus performers only work for five minutes a day; not so, they spend their entire day preparing for the performance, for those five minutes. It’s all consuming. You wake up in the morning, it’s about the show. You eat your meals; you’re thinking about the show. It’s all about bringing your energy to the show. That is what the craft is about. I did it for 31 years, and traveling, so when I did step out of the ring, it was a relief. It’s live performance; so it’s rough. Fortunately, there were a series of people that a lot of this could be handed off to.
The most exciting days of my life were when we would start working on a new show, with an idea, conception and theme. Sitting at the table are Tony Award winners, and me, little Paulie from Brooklyn. I’m lucky; I’m tellin’ ya, I’m lucky!