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The Happy Dream of Running a Circus
The Happy Dream of Running a Circus


January 13, 2024


When people ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them I run a circus, I'm usually met with an eye-roll and some quip like, “Yeah, so do I…” And then there's an amusing moment when I insist, “No, I'm the actual CEO of the Big

Apple Circus.”

There's no denying that this is a tricky time to be running a circus. We live in the age of TikTok, in which everyone seems to have two-second attention spans and all sorts of streaming services in their pockets and at home on their televisions. At times it feels like a struggle to get anyone out to see something that can seem as old-timey as the circus. The last few years have not been kind to the American circus industry. In the period after the financial crisis, Big Apple's board made valiant efforts to keep the circus afloat, but in 2016, it declared bankruptcy. This was followed by the discontinuation of The Greatest Show on Earth in 2017 and Cirque du Soleil's bankruptcy in 2020. Covid put the kibosh on everything.

But the Big Apple Circus was lucky enough to come back to life with a new investor—Michael Cohl, a veteran music promoter and the former chairman of

Live Nation—and in 2022 I took the reins. Right now, my office is inside a converted semi-trailer on 62nd Street in New York, a warm environment overlooking the Big Top tent currently sitting in Lincoln Center. Underneath this tent, 10 times a week for about two and a half months of the year, we put on a two-hour show for some 1,600 people. A whole village springs up at Lincoln Center to house the performers and crew. It's a funny place, with funny traditions and a language all its own. In Circusspeak, the toilets are called “donnikers”; the main entrance into the ring is “the chute,” and we refer to the canteen as the “pie cart.”

The village is full of characters. There's Mateo Cristiani, our ebullient front-of-house manager in his suit and tie and fedora, who is the sixth generation of a famous circus family and a retired trampoline performer. He is married to Gena Schwartzman, a juggler I saw back in the '90s when she was a kid-star of Ringling Brothers and who was in our show last year. There's also the vaudevillian contortionist from Ukraine, the foot juggler from New Zealand, and the ex-mechanic turned clown who rides into the ring in a steampunk bicycle he built himself.

This year's show is a collaboration with German-based Circus-Theater Roncalli, a one-ring circus company founded in 1976 that is as vibrant as ever, and I never tire of watching it. Often I do so from the back row of the mezzanine section, where it's possible to see the entire audience while reaching up and touching the dark blue canvas roof of the tent. I've been captivated by the sequined, gritty glamour of it all ever since my parents took my twin brother Jake and me to see The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth, at Philadelphia's since-demolished Spectrum Arena. Ernest Hemingway called the circus a “happy dream.” That's what it felt like to me, and I wanted to be part of it.

The LaSalle Brothers, Marty (left) and Jake, perform in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2007. Photo: Marty LaSalle
So my brother and I taught ourselves to juggle, and soon discovered that we could combine juggling and gymnastics. We pieced together enough tricks, stupid jokes and embarrassingly bad costumes for street performances and small, mostly amateur, stage shows throughout the area. We were soon approached by coaches and choreographers, and by the time we got to high school our act was pretty good. We spent those years performing in theaters, on cruise ships, and at corporate events and smaller circus companies all over the world.

After graduating from college in 2007, the LaSalle Brothers joined the Big Apple Circus, which had established itself as one of the most prestigious places in the world to work as a circus performer. Founded in New York in 1977, it got a competitor seven years later in Montreal's Cirque du Soleil, which would go on to become a live entertainment behemoth valued at $3 billion at its peak in 2006.

Both companies revolutionized circus in America, at a time when it had become a stale rehash of the grand spectacles of the early 20th century. Big Apple Circus introduced intimate, European-inspired one-ring productions in a traditional Big Top tent, while Cirque du Soleil combined dreamlike narratives, operatic staging and music, and commedia del arte style. The collapse of the Soviet Union supercharged the revival by unleashing extraordinarily advanced performers forged in the state-funded Moscow Circus School.


Working as a performer at the Big Apple meant all sorts of adventures—greeting stars like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes by the animal stables behind the Big Top, braving the cold in our sleeveless velvet vests to perform for the Today Show at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But when we turned 24 my brother and I decided to retire our act. He went off to medical school, I eventually landed in Los Angeles and got a job at the talent agency CAA. When I got the chance to return to the Big Apple Circus as CEO, I couldn't say no.

It's a crazy job, but I have reasons to feel optimistic about the circus and its place in the culture in 2024 and beyond. People never tire of the idea of the circus. Harry Styles joins the circus in the music video for his song “Daylight.” Sculptor Alexander Calder's elaborate model “Calder's Circus” is a highlight of the permanent collection at the Whitney. A circus-set musical, “Water for Elephants,” is Broadway bound.

Circuses have captivated human beings for centuries, because there's something about them that speaks to our deepest desires. Watching the performers at work, I'm often reminded of something Federico Fellini, director of the classic circus movie “La Strada,” once said: “The clown is the incarnation of a fantastic creature who expresses the irrational aspect of man…He stands for the instinct, for whatever is rebellious in each one of us and whatever stands up to the established order of things.”

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