The biggest Big Top

Courtesy photo

TRAINED exotic animals, like tigers, are part of the five-ring excitement at the Carson & Barnes Circus.

Twenty-eight years later La Palme is still with the circus, but now he's ringmaster.

"After 28 years I still love it. I have a passion for it everyday," he declares. "This isn't a job. It's a lifestyle. We live this job 24 hours a day. Why else would you work seven days a week 10 months out of year?"

As circus ringmaster, La Palme announces all the acts and sees himself as a cheerleader, pumping up the audience to get excited. During the off season he works as a special effects makeup artist.

"I think I'm the luckiest guy on the planet because I get to go to the circus twice a day," he comments during a phone interview.

Sadly, the traditional big top circus is fading in America, La Palme explains, and with less than 10 remaining most only tour big cities.

Verde Valley residents have the rare opportunity to see the Carson & Barnes five-ring circus at Riverfront Park in Cottonwood. Featuring over 100 exotic and domestic animals as well as a host of performers from around the world, Carson & Barnes will present two shows at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 25.

"This is the only circus that has no intermission. You get your money's worth," La Palme promises.

The event is hosted by the Kiwanis Clubs of the Verde Valley, which will receive a portion of the proceeds from advance ticket sales. The Kiwanis plan to use the funds to support youth activities throughout the Verde Valley such as the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Arizona and the Teen Center in Sedona, says Larry Ault, a member of the Sedona-Bell Rock Kiwanis Club.

Approximately 2,200 people are expected per show.

"For the price to go to a circus you can't see a movie. You get more bang for your buck and you'll interact with a traveling zoo that you don't usually get to see," Ault emphasizes.

Patrons can save 30 percent if they buy tickets early. Advance adult tickets are $10 and $5 for children ages 2-11; children under 2 admitted free. Tickets at the gate cost $14 for adults and $7 for children ages 2-11.

Tickets are available at all Circle K locations throughout the Verde Valley, Bashas' in Sedona and Camp Verde, Cafe Jose in Sedona, Camp Verde Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Commerce Cottonwood and Food City, and in Beaver Creek at Rimrock Mercantile and The Grocery Basket.

While other circuses have reduced its size, Carson & Barnes has expanded and is the only organization still capable of moving a huge show of some 80 vehicles, including trucks, trailers and RVs every 24 hours.

The four-generation Miller family has successfully owned and operated Carson & Barnes for 66 years. The late D.R. Miller, founder, and known as "Mr. Circus," was recently inducted into the “Circus Ring of Fame” in Sarasota, Fla., and the “Circus Hall Of Fame” in Peru, Ind.

His legacy of American family entertainment is being carried on by his daughter, Barbara Miller Byrd and her husband, Geary Byrd, and his granddaughters’ families who are involved in the day-to-day operation of this complex, multi-faceted community.

Upon arrival at the park, the animals will be immediately unloaded, fed and watered. Many of these species are rare and endangered, such as hippo, giraffe, zebu, zonkie, zebra, camels and both Asian and African elephants. All can be seen in the large traveling zoo.

Four hundred stakes, 134 poles and several miles of cables and ropes are laid out and prepared as the crew and trained elephants push, pull and lift the 300-foot Big Top of the shining polyvinyl auditorium 40 feet into the air. The public is invited to watch the setup at Riverfront Park on circus morning between 8 and 10 a.m.

The performers are artists from around the world, including the United States, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Russia and Italy.

Watch in awe as lions, tigers and ligers mix in the same cage under the watchful eye of lion tamer Eugene Baranok of Russia.

Baranok spent about 30 years training bears and chimps, he says, but the past nine years he has devoted to wild animals.

His day begins at 6 a.m. when he tends to the big cats. Later he spends about two hours preparing the equipment for each show; there are two performances daily. He feeds the cats 10 pounds of meat a day after the second show.

After nine years, Baranok says he has learned to safely work with the 400-pound cats by becoming leader of the pack and always maintaining eye contact with them.

"They're not domestic cats. They're dangerous."

During the two-hour show audiences can marvel at the death-defying double wheels of destiny as acrobats perform at the peak of the big top. Be astounded by flying trapeze artists, clowns, jugglers, and the mammoth elephants. Carson & Barnes presents the only Liberty Horse Act in the United States composed entirely of the rare Friesian stallions.

A highlight of the show is the Grand Spectacular Parade, which this year features a Spanish theme, Viva España, with beautiful handmade costumes and blankets.

New this season, the Fusco family from Argentina will bring their “Gaucho Extravaganza" act to the United States.

Not to be missed is 2,700-pound “Baby Jennie,” as show folks affectionately call her. The 4-year-old Asian elephant frequently takes over the center ring, dancing, playing the tambourine, harmonica and drum.

Despite the controversy about whether performing animals are abused or should be in the circus at all, Baby Jennie is a living testament to the contrary. She was trained through positive reinforcement and treats such as animal cookies, says Mal Knopf, advance coordinator with the circus.

In fact, Baby Jennie was born at the Endangered Ark Foundation in the Red River Valley of Oklahoma. The foundation provides for endangered species, and operates a breeding program for the endangered Asian elephant.

For more information about the Carson & Barnes Circus, visit


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