Unicycle troupe built to amaze, build character

Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2014, 1:05 pm
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
This year's tour of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is called "Built to Amaze." Not only is one of its acts -- the African-American King Charles Troupe -- amazing, but its swirling feats of playing basketball while on unicycles aim to build character.

"It's a privilege for us -- we're carrying on one man's idea, his legacy, to build character on a unicycle," troupe leader Kim Anthony ("Kip") Jones said in a recent interview. Many of the men in the 13-member troupe come from difficult, disadvantaged backgrounds, and it's a thrill for them to travel the country with Ringling Bros., Mr. Jones said.

"It's definitely a privilege and blessing for a lot of the guys," he said. "A lot of them didn't have a full parental household. This provides the framework for us to become men, become disciplined, working as a team, ultimately producing better citizens."

The troupe traces its origins to nearly a century ago. In 1918, a young boy by the name of Jerry King slipped under the tent to see "The Greatest Show on Earth" in Tampa, Fla. All he recalled from that day were the elephants and a man on the high-wire riding a unicycle.

In 1958, as a father who was concerned with negative social events occurring within his community in the South Bronx, New York City, Mr. King taught his son Charles, and every kid in the neighborhood who wanted to learn, to ride a unicycle. He started a unicycle club and laid down certain rules to follow -- such as discipline, direction and Christian principles, according to the group history.

Ten years later, the troupe auditioned on the sidewalk outside of Madison Square Garden for Irvin Feld, producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The audition was a success, and the King Charles Troupe made its circus debut in 1969, becoming the first all-black circus act in the history of Ringling Bros.

Led by King's son Charles, the King Charles Troupe reigned in popularity for nearly 20 years with the circus. Now, with a new generation of producers Nicole Feld and Alana Feld, the next generation of the King Charles Troupe has come together again in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Built to Amaze.

Originally from the Bronx, Mr. Jones joined the troupe 33 years ago at the age of 15. With a background in gymnastics, on a whim he accompanied a friend to the troupe's tryouts, and he has been performing with the King Charles Troupe ever since.

"I would probably say there are 13 different things going on in the ring at the same time," Mr. Jones said of the fast-moving act. "We make it organized chaos." It took Mr. Jones about two months to learn how to master the unicycle, he said, and it's even harder coordinating all the guys to be moving at the same time.

"We're all moving parts trying to become one part," Mr. Jones said. "It's coordination, discipline, knowing what the next member if going to do. If we can't see each other all time, we feel each other in the ring. It is a choreographed routine."

The troupe exhibits skills ranging from slam-dunks, dribbling and passing to rope jumping and acrobatics.

"Their brand of fast-paced basketball and comedy continue to be enormous favorites," according to a release from the circus.

In 2012, apart from the circus, Mr. Jones was part of accomplishing a record-setting 164 single jumps on a unicycle while double-dutch jump-roping. "That's another act able to develop after the basketball, a single and double-dutch routine," he said.

"It looks hard and kind of jaw-dropping, but basketball is the more difficult, because the ball always takes a different bounce," Mr. Jones said. "You have to choreograph the routine to how the ball bounces."

The troupe -- which has been referred to as the Harlem Globetrotters on unicycles -- will do about 30 seconds of jump-roping in the circus finale, he said.

The troupe has been consistently inspired by the Globetrotters, "seeing them doing different types of tricks, maybe we can do that on unicycles," Mr. Jones said. "That has been translated into the routine."

Mr. Jones said he especially enjoys the fact that they're able to "perform in many famous arenas around the country, help bring smiles to different faces," he said. "It's the appreciation we get from the audience, what we see in their eyes."

"It's the fact our founder, Jerry King, basically taught us to be humble, to give back to the community in any fashion," Mr. Jones said.

Part of that outreach will be on display at 10:15 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 28, in a "Circus Fit" event at the Moline Two Rivers YMCA with a pre-selected group of Y students. Circus Fit (circusfit.com) focuses on childhood obesity, exercise and strengthening communities.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey entertainers, including members of the King Charles Troupe, will teach students how fun being active can be. Circus Fit is a national youth fitness program that encourages kids to lead a healthy, active lifestyle by combining the fun of circus skills with stretching, strength building and aerobic exercise in honor of "Built to Amaze."

If you go

What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Built to Amaze.
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 29; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 30; 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31; and 1 p.m. Monday, Sept. 1.
Where: iWireless Center, 1201 River Drive, Moline.
Tickets: $14, $19, $32 (VIP), and $65 (Circus Celebrity), with $12 seats for kids 12 and younger (some restrictions apply). Available at the iWireless Center box office, by calling 800-745-3000, and at Ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit iwirelesscenter.com.


Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, Sept. 17, the 260th day of 2014. There are 105 days left in the year.
1864 -- 150 years ago: We are told league merchants have paid no attention to the prohibition on selling ammunition, but continue to sell just as before the order was issued.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The Rev. R.F. Sweet, rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish, left for the East to visit his boyhood home in Boston before attending the general convention of the Episcopal Church in New York.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Dr. E.A. Anderson was named to succeed Dr. E.L. Kerns as head physician of the Modern Woodmen of America, and moved to Rock Island from Holdingford, Minn.
1939 -- 75 years ago: One week late, because of the outbreak of war, Dr. E.L. Beyer resumed his work as professor of romance languages at Augustana College. Dr. and Mrs. Beyer left Germany on the last train to the Belgian border.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Employees in Turnstyle stores in Moline and Davenport will vote Oct. 2 in an election set up by the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. Employees will vote either for the Retail Clerk International or for no union.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Rock Island High School is considering a step to help teen moms stay in school and get their diploma. The school board is expected to vote tonight on instituting an on-site child care center.

(More History)