During the summer, some suburban mall parking lots across Toronto become temporary, G-rated entertainment centres as circuses appear literally overnight. Foremost among these are Shrine Circuses, which are similar in some ways to a caravan of quirky relatives who show up summer after summer, seemingly unannounced, in enormous camper trailers. For reasons purely nostalgic, they are always welcomed back—as long as they promise to sleep in the driveway.
Such was the case last week when roughly two acres of blacktop at Centerpoint Mall was transformed, lickety-split, from a blistering patch of parking lot into a fully functioning one-ring circus. Not quite the greatest show on Earth, but it did have many traditional big top features: a multi-coloured tent, concession stands, clown alley, elephants, acrobats, trick poodles, plus a legendary circus master and a spattering of protesters.
The Shrine Circus has performed in Toronto since 1930. Back then, performances took place on the grounds of Exhibition Place. Later, they were at Maple Leaf Gardens. Circuses started moving to the suburbs around the same time the city’s residents did, in the early 1960s.
Numerous circuses perform under the Shriners’ marquee. The organization contracts out performances. Shriners themselves continue to be involved—working the gate, selling programs, and entertaining audiences with clown routines. Monies raised support charities and Shrine hospitals.
Shrine Circus at Centerpoint Mall.
The 12-show, five-day stint at Centerpoint was the Shrine Circus’s second visit to a local parking lot. In June, tent crews set up at East York Town Centre in Thorncliffe.
Of all circuses held in the GTA, Centerpoint’s has the largest turnout. Circus veteran, organizational expert, and general manager with TZ Productions Larry Solheim pegged attendance at around 20,000.
“Where else can an entire family come to see great entertainment at an affordable price?” he asked. Half-price ticket deals are always available.
The behind-the-scenes circus vibe is a cross between a trailer park and a fun house. With the exception of the admission gates, the site is ringed entirely by flatbed tractor trailers and Winnebagos. It’s not unusual to hear an elephant trumpeting over the continuous drone of portable generators. Child-clowns somersault past as Winky, possibly the second saddest clown in history, puffs on a cigarette.
General Manager Larry Solheim.
The circus’s owner, Tarzan Zerbini, is legendary. If not the Gretzky of the big top, he’s certainly the Mario Lemieux. His status on the Centerpoint lot was reflected in the comfort, size, and placement of his trailer. Zerbinis have been circus people for generations. Family is a pillar of the circus; Zerbini’s adult children, along with their spouses, are also circus performers.
Tent crews as experienced as Zerbini’s can erect a single-ring, million-dollar tent like the one at Centerpoint in as little as six hours. The work is physically demanding and soaring temperatures last week didn’t help.
Deane Suni, 42, is part of the tent crew. Although no big cats perform in this show, Suni sports an angry, claw-like gash on his bare shoulder, possibly the result of the steel rigging he handles daily. Cuts and scrapes like this come with the job.
Suni ran away with the circus after a failed marriage two years ago. Previously, he had fished offshore in British Columbia. Mopping his brow, he said, “The circus is great. The days are long. I love what I do—except for this heat.”
Performers come from around the globe. Besides entertaining the crowds, they play a key role backstage. When not in the ring, they act as stagehands, readying equipment for the next act.
Martin Gonzales is a 21-year-old acrobat, originally from Peru, and a seventh-generation performer. The entire Gonzales clan tours. His brother and sister lead a pack of excitable poodles in an act billed as a “cascade of canine confusion.” The other Gonzaleses perform a high-energy skip-rope routine.
Gonzales enjoys the Toronto portion of the seven-month tour. “Here turnout is always big. If I left the circus, I would live in Toronto, or Ottawa, or maybe Quebec City.”
The Gonzales family.
Circuses with animal features have many detractors. Solheim said between two and two dozen protesters gather outside performances. He respects their right to protest. Protests in Toronto concern mainly elephant care.
Lining the sidewalk adjacent to the lot, protesters are not permitted on mall property. None were present when Torontoist visited, but Solheim said that at an earlier show two gained entry using fraudulent tickets. They disrupted the performance by shouting and waving a banner.
During the final performance on the Monday of the civic holiday long weekend, workers began dismantling circus apparatus. Dean Suni’s crew worked into the night, lowering the tent and stowing it on flatbeds. By morning, Toronto residents would awake to find the nearly empty mall parking lot returned to its original condition.
Photos by Ryan Walker/Torontoist.