Circus Roncalli's first show was held on May 18, 1976. For the 40th anniversary tour of the famous German circus, nostalgia meets modern performance, with high-paced acts and trendy music.
"Leave your worries outside and walk into our hearts," are the words with which the clown Fulgenci Mestres Bertran poetically greets visitors at the beginning of the show.
The music of the Roncalli Royal Orchestra plays celestial jungle sounds - for a few seconds only. Suddenly groovy pop rhythms take over, and the group Bingo from Kiev storms the circus ring. Women with punk hairstyles and shirtless men present simultaneously somersault, swirl and twirl up long ribbons and rods or jumping ropes. Everything moves so quickly, it's hard to follow the action.
Balancing act between nostalgia and modernity
The circus is moving with the times. The program is filled with contrasts: "If the show simply flowed quietly the whole time, it wouldn't work anymore," says circus director Bernhard Paul. Compared to 40 years ago, people are used to a fast pace.
"There has to be something for everyone, like a lush advertisement from paradise," Paul explains. The ingredients for his program can still be recognized: "Take clowns, jugglers, acrobats, mix them with poetic moments, emotions, and harmonious colors; add a touch of exoticism, and you'll get Roncalli," he summarizes.
When his daughter Vivi Paul, dressed as Harlequin, performs her act on a pneumatic tire, it reminds him of all the magical moments that made his circus famous. Bernhard Paul has three children who will one day lead the circus and pursue his childhood dream.
Journey to the rainbow
To fulfill his dream, he left a well-paid position as the artistic director of an ad agency in the 70s. He imagined running an old traveling circus with wooden cars and funny clowns, just like the one he remembered from his childhood in the Austrian town of Wilhelmsburg.
Bernhard Paul bought an old circus wagon from the Circus Williams and painted it with fresh colors. The first performance took place on May 18, 1976 in Bonn. Because he had only found two clowns for a clown trio, he joined in the act as well. He became known as the Clown Zippo, a comforting character that didn't fit in modern life.
In the 80s, the circus became renowned with the show "Journey to the Rainbow." Legendary acts like the mime Pic, who floated in a bubble, the frog man John AK and the acrobatic golden creatures all come from this period.
The show was as colorful as a rainbow, and that's what Bernhard Paul aims to reproduce for the 40th anniversary tour.
A house like a museum
The circus director has covered the ceiling of his mansion in Cologne with paintings commemorating the best acts of that period. Porcelain figures from the circus world are displayed in wooden cabinets lining the walls. "Gems of circus history are collected here," Paul says proudly.
He gathered most of the items over the years. "Many small circuses couldn't keep anything, and that's a shame, because circus is a really a great art form," he says. The passionate collector proudly points out the violin that originally belonged to the Swiss clown Grock. That clown, along with Charlie Chaplin, is one of his role models.
Circus is not considered culture in Germany
Sometimes, the circus director goes back on stage as a clown, but managing the business leaves him little time for that. His company now also runs another music hall show, historic Christmas markets and theater productions with circus acts and classical music. Bernhard Paul does not receive any financial support from the German state.
"Under the Third Reich, Goebbels said that circus is not culture," he explains. Since then, circus has always been considered a business in Germany.
That's different in other countries, which is why Paul has always hoped the European Union would standardize national regulations in the field. To this day, Germany remains an exception. "In England, circuses are part of culture and are supported by the state; the same goes in France and Italy. In Germany, since Goebbels, a circus has been a business - and has a very high tax rate."
The largest collection in Europe
On the former grounds of the Circus Williams in Cologne are the storage halls and repair workshops of the Circus Roncalli. That's where Paul keeps old toys, carousels, costumes and artifacts of the past.
"I have spent my whole life collecting, and many experts claim that I own one of the largest circus and music hall collections in the world," he says. He wants to make it accessible to the public in a museum. "There would be a hall of fame of the greatest names of the circus world. We would also like to create an archive of all the artists and circuses worldwide."
For now, the halls look like a huge flea market. The supervisor Nello can't really imagine it turning into a museum. "It's too much work," he says, waving it off. Some storage rooms are filled with boxes. In other spaces you have to watch out not to knock over old advertising signs in the narrow corridors or accidentally let a row of dolls fall off the shelves.
There is no inventory of what's to be found there; it's all kept in Bernhard Paul's head. "He knows everything better than a computer," says Nello. Bernhard Paul can imagine having his museum ready within two years. It would obviously include the 40-year history of his own circus too.