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Sunday, August 7, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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With The Greatest Ease

Want to learn to eat fire? Just keep your eyebrows out of the way and don't swallow. Natalie does it every day. Want to walk a high wire? Hang on to John's waist here and step on out. Whatever you do, don't look down and don't think about being 35 feet in the air on a cable the diameter of a dime.

How about holding a paper cone between your teeth so some Zorro wannabe can whip it out of your mouth? Theresa can show you how.

Uh-h-h. Some other time, kids. OK?

Natalie, John and Theresa say anyone can learn to do the death-defying acts they do as part of the Wenatchee Youth Circus. All you gotta do is try.

And be a little nuts.

Unless you insist on lion tamers and elephants, this circus is the real thing. There's a calliope and a bandwagon, four small equipment and costume wagons painted with curlique circus writing, two red-and-white dressing/sleeping tents, and a flatbed trailer and a semi to pack it all into. And there are 50 kids aged 3 to 19 flying high, clowning around and defying death with the greatest of ease.

This one-ring circus - one of only a couple of traveling youth circuses in the country - has been around for the past 42 years, since a Wenatchee junior high school teacher named Paul Pugh organized it as an after-school tumbling class.

`It fulfilled a need'

Pugh, 67, says he started the circus "because there wasn't much of anything for kids to do back then. I guess it fulfilled a

need."

The kids were on the road within only a few years - a complete nonprofit circus with acrobats, aerialists and clowns. Most performances are in Washington, but the troupe averages 12,000 miles a year and has traveled as far away as Alaska and Texas.

Pugh, who retired as a principal in the Wenatchee school system, still travels with the kids. He's the managing director and Guppo the Clown, the only adult performer.

Pugh is everywhere at once during setup, corralling kids to help raise the high wire, unpack costumes, or put up a tent, yelling at everyone to get a move-on. He's supported by about 10 parents who travel with the circus, preparing meals, driving and keeping the performers in line.

All the kids start out as clowns, but the littlest ones also may find themselves at the top of the Human Pyramid pretty quickly. Most of the performers do a little bit of everything, including playing in the band and spotting the aerial acts.

Every one of them is on the lookout for an act that's more "death defying" than anyone else's.

"I always wanted to eat fire," said Natalie Thresher, 15, who's been with the circus for the past five years and is in a half-dozen acts. "Last year I tried it for the first time and I did a lot of burns on my hair and my eyes and my nose. The first time I had to close my eyes and have a friend put it in my mouth."

Frizzled hair and no eyebrows aren't the only drawbacks to being a fire eater, she says. "The aftertaste is awful."

Seventeen-year-old John Snyder, who makes his high-wire act look death-defying, says it's really simple. "You have a balance bar and you just walk."

`You learn to trust people'

Theresa Flom, 14, rolls her own newspaper cones for the whip act. Somebody has to do it, she shrugs. "And you learn to trust people and that's good."

The acts are really not all that dangerous, said Debra Flom, Theresa's mom and the circus treasurer. There are nets under the trapeze and high wire, and spotters. The performers are reminded constantly to check their equipment before they start their acts, "just like the real circus."

"I think the worst injury we've ever had was the kid who broke his leg when he stepped in a hole in a field at Roche Harbor Resort," Flom said.

Anyone still in school can join the Wenatchee Youth Circus, although a parent or guardian has to travel with kids under 12.

Snyder joined when he was 10. A gymnast, he'd gone to see the troupe in his home town, Ephrata. "I called up Guppo and he said come on down. I performed my first show in Ephrata."

Since then, Snyder has moved in with his grandmother in Wenatchee so he can practice with the troupe during the off season. He's become a sort of father confessor and camp counselor to the younger boys in the troupe. He was pounding stakes for the high wire before a recent performance when one of the younger boys said he'd like to talk.

He'd asked one of the girls out, he said, digging his toes in the dirt. He just wanted Snyder to know.

"Well, be good to her," Snyder advised. "And don't talk about it too much to everybody."

"Relationships don't last too long around here," one of the girls shrugged, watching them walk off to talk about it. "You get to know each other too well. You get to be like family."

This is family territory, and everyone's a real or adopted sibling. Five Flom children have been with the circus, including Theresa, who does aerials, clowns and whips, and Monica, 6, who's been dressing up and milling around with the clowns since she could walk. Snyder's little sister, Mary, 14, is here for the summer; and Pugh's son, Dave, has brought his teenage daughter, Sarah, from California.

Dave Pugh, a musician and painting contractor, estimates that as many as 200 Wenatchee performers have gone on to work in circuses, theme parks, circus camps or gymnastics schools.

Training the younger kids

But many of the performers go on to college and leave the death defying for the younger kids. Proceeds from the $2 program go toward scholarships.

"I'm sure a few of the performers want to go to a professional circus," said Theresa Flom, who's more serious than you'd expect Bimbo the Clown to be and seems a little surprised at being asked if that's in her plans. "I really want to be a biologist in Africa in the rain forest. Did you know half that continent hasn't even been explored yet?"

Snyder is applying to Harvard and hopes to go to medical school. Thresher wants to be a medical assistant.

Youngsters with such purpose don't usually pose discipline problems, said Patti Roundy, president of the organization and one of the parents.

The only performer Roundy remembers ever being sent home was the snake charmer who let his hormones take over and started trying to charm girls instead of Snuggles, the 14-foot python who was the circus' only wild animal.

It was Snuggles' last death-defying act, too. He died last winter of pneumonia.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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