A family menagerie performing for survival | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.06.2015
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A family menagerie performing for survival

The Charlie Monroe gang, part of a dying breed of family circuses, fights to keep a tradition alive. After five generations, they still don't plan to ride far out of Cologne and certainly not into the sunset.

"In our world of smartphones and digital entertainment, we are the Monroes, your circus family who are there for you in the flesh, as long as you keep coming, as long as people like you are still around who want to share the enjoyment we have putting on our show."

Veronika, 55, delivers her epilogue to a show that comprises camels, poodles, ponies, fireworks, trapeze, rings and other stunts under big top set up by her family. For Charles, her husband, Marco, her son, Diane, her daughter, and Saskia, her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, this is all they have.

The Monroe Circus travels from spot to spot during the summer months, bringing its menagerie to several towns and neighborhoods around the western city of Cologne. Chickens run around and poodles, seemingly ownerless, sniff anything they can get their noses near. The grass around the massive blue and red circus tent is full of dog turds. Caramel popcorn is being consumed by the box, but it's not clear where it's coming from. Still, there's an indistinct sense of excitement in the air.

Familienzirkus in Deutschland

Diane in the stars with diamonds

Before long, the show inside the tent begins. There are about 30 people in attendance: Families with kids who are either afraid - or faking that they're not - line the seats in the dark and a smoke machine spouts just before the show begins.

Out of nowhere Diana Monroe shoots into the air. She is wrapped up in rags and suspended from the ceiling, and every little boy and girl inside the tent looks up in fright to see how she will get down. On her way, she demonstrates the strength that is a requisite of the circus life. If this were part of even advanced fitness courses, for male or female, few in the audience would be able to pull it off.

Then her father comes out. He's schooled in slapstick. He takes out a newspaper that's devoted to the topic of the day, the FIFA scandals surrounding Sepp Blatter, and talks about how much of a friend Sepp has been to him over the years.

On and on Charles rambles, clearly unaware that his newspaper is on fire. Of all the five Monroes, he is the one who has a command of the audience. He knows how to get the crowd laughing and clapping.

Familienzirkus in Deutschland

Charles Monroe has a bit of Charlie Chaplin in him

The show life looks like fun and games - something to romance about. "If all else fails," goes the adage, "you can always run away with the circus." Or how about this one: "Our family is just one tent away from a full-blown circus."

But the Monroes are a full-blown circus, and they have been for well over 100 years. The parents, grandparents and grand-grand-grandparents who came before them traveled around Europe, to Belgium and the Netherlands, but now they just stick to Cologne and its surroundings. It's too hard to get by now to leave one place.

"We aren't big. Obviously. We do this for the animals," Charles told DW, petting one of the two camels - a main attraction to the show.

"We live the life we were given," Veronika added, apparently devoid of doubt, but full of worry about the future of the circus - and the animals. "Sometimes we don't have enough money to feed our animals. That is hard."

Veronika said she was thrilled about the 30 spectators who came to the recent Sunday show: "There are times when everything works the way we hope. And then we get the feeling that the passion we put into this life is rewarded. But there are other kinds of times too."

The circus business is relatively established in Germany. But other than a handful of large companies, like Circus Roncalli, the vast majority of the endeavors in the country are family-owned enterprises. And that's something that spectators seem to enjoy.

Familienzirkus in Deutschland

Ali, one of the two camels, being pulled into the show from outside the tent

"We love the atmosphere here," said Peter, a 42-year-old father of three girls who were jumping on a trampoline outside the tent at intermission. "What more do you want? Fun for my girls, fun for me and my wife, fun for all of us."

And what about the stiff price of admission?

"No, that's no problem at all," said Miriam, who was here with two grandchildren. "An entire afternoon full of real fun for all of us - for 50 euros? I have no problem spending that!"

Circus uncertainty

Again, this Sunday was perhaps exceptional with regard to the relatively high attendance.

Sometimes not many people come at all. And that can hurt, Veronika said.

"When we think about the future, it's hard to hold back the fear that we won't make it," she said. "Our son, Marco, is about to marry Saskia. They want to turn this into a six-generation circus. But we need more people to come visit, and we can't force them to come here…"

The reason the Monroes stick around Cologne is primarily because they are allowed to set up their tent for free. It's a deal between the city and the circus. But Veronika doesn't like the idea of freeloading.

"We will keep going, no matter what," she said. "I will die as part of this circus. And my sincere wish is that the circus remain part of my family forever. Even if it's no longer possible, we will keep going."