Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion (and other uncommon tales from the founder of the Big Apple Circus) is a celebration of Paul Binder’s life in and around the circus. Drawing on thirty-five years with the show he created, the Big Apple Circus’ founder and founding Artistic Director invites us inside the fence every kid peers through for an intimate look at the uncommon life of circus artists, their animal partners, and the roustabouts who spend their days in a world that is both close-knit and international, high-minded and low comedy, death-defying and ludicrous.
Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion (and other uncommon tales from the founder of the Big Apple Circus) balances the weird and the workaday, the curious and the commonplace, the exhilaration and the exhaustion of life in the circus, with simple portrayals of ordinary people going about the business of achieving the extraordinary.
I watched as the NYPD police car slowed to a stop outside the front gate and a uniformed officer climbed out. It wasn’t the appearance of a policeman that concerned me. We’d seen plenty of them during this first season of the Big Apple Circus -- like most of the people who passed by our lot, they were curious about the green canvas tent occupying this barren, windswept landfill at Battery Park. No, it wasn’t the policeman but his vehicle that puzzled me. Emblazoned alongside the NYPD logo were the words “Humane Law Enforcement Division.”
There’s an entire division dedicated to ensuring that the law is enforced humanely? I wondered as he approached. Were these the guys who invented holding a suspect’s head while loading him into the back of a squad car, so he wouldn’t bump it on the roof?
“Can I help you, officer?” I said.
“I’d like to speak to…” he began, and then unfolded the newspaper he was carrying. After a quick glance he said: “The juggling act called ‘Michael and Paul.’”
I recognized the newspaper that the officer from NYPD’s Humane Law Enforcement Division carried, a tabloid that had recently run an error-filled article about the nascent Big Apple Circus. Among other inaccuracies, the article had referred to “Paul and Michael, the chicken jugglers.” We’d found it odd that the reporter had regarded Leonard the rubber chicken as the focus of our act.
“I’m Paul Binder,” I told the officer. “Michael’s backstage. What’s this all about?”
“Let’s go get him,” he said, ignoring my question.
We found Michael on a wooden folding chair at the back door of the tent, enjoying a smoke, our closed prop trunk at his feet.
“This is Michael Christensen,” I said, and Michael’s eyes widened.
“We received a complaint based on this article,” he said grimly, tapping the newspaper. “You two are the chicken jugglers?”
In that instant our puzzlement gave way to suppressed hilarity. I didn’t dare look at Michael, because if I did I knew we’d both erupt into laughter. Instead I stared at the ground and admitted that we were, in fact, the “chicken jugglers.”
“I need to see the chickens,” the officer instructed.
“Well, there’s really only the one,” Michael managed to say while stifling his laughter.
“Let’s see it, then.”
Michael leaned over and flipped open the trunk at his feet. There, nestled in among our clubs, balls, hats, and shoes, lay Leonard the rubber chicken.
The officer stared down at Leonard for a good half minute before raising his eyes first to Michael, then me.
“That’s the chicken in your act?” he asked in disbelief.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“The only chicken?”
“Yes, sir,” Michael answered. “You want to see him?” He reached down towards the trunk.
“No, no,” said the officer. “Let him sleep. He looks exhausted.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Paul Binder graduated from Dartmouth College and earned an MBA at Columbia University. After working at WGBH-TV in Boston (as a stage manager for Julia Child’s The French Chef) and as a talent coordinator for Merv Griffin, Binder headed west and learned juggling with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, where he met Michael Christensen.
Together, Binder and Christensen traveled through Europe and earned their living by juggling on street corners. Their act landed them on the legendary stage of the Casino de Paris, on French television and, eventually, in the ring of Annie Fratellini’s Nouveau Cirque de Paris.
Binder returned to New York with a dream: to create an American circus with the same dedication to theatrical excellence and artistic intimacy that he and Christensen had experienced in Europe. He found the people who would share his dream and implement his vision, and in 1977, the Big Apple Circus was born.
In 2009, Binder “stepped out of the ring,” and was honored by ABC News as “Person of the Week.” He continues to work with the Big Apple Circus as a senior advisor. He is currently in demand as a guest speaker and has lectured and led seminars at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and Barnard College
Binder received honorary doctorate degrees in fine arts from his alma mater, Dartmouth, and from Pratt Institute and Rhode Island College. He also received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Long Island University. In 2001 he was named NYC Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. He is the proud father of Katherine, Max, Adam, and Anais.