The Show Must Go On

Animal-rights protests and changing audience tastes beg the question: Will this generation of the Hanneford circus dynasty be the last?

George Hanneforf III is short, broad, and muscular, with Johnny Weissmuller, 1930s, old Hollywood, he-man good looks and an Old World demeanor. At the moment, his natural courtliness is at odds with the outfit he's wearing -- baby blue-and-white-striped cotton clown pants, decorated with red, yellow, and green saucer-size patches and held up with suspenders because they are so wide that another George or two could easily jump inside. And neither his manner nor his outfit jibe with the tears welling in his eyes.

On the other side of a deep-red velvet curtain, an audience of more than 1,000 people has gathered for the 3:30 p.m. Thanksgiving Day show of the Hanneford Family Circus at the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. George's sister Catherine, a willowy blond clad in a closer-fitting version of the striped and patched clown pants, is leading four golden furry ponies around a turnstile, giving rides to children before the circus starts. When the pony rides end, Catherine hurries backstage and ducks into a dressing room.

The house lights dim. The loudspeakers blare big-band marching tunes. A mirrored disco ball lowers, and spotlights swirling through stencils cast blue stars, pink circles, and images of clowns over the audience and onto the center ring. Marina Burkatska, a Russian aerialist, and Lisa Malservisi, an Italian/English dancer, work the front selling popcorn, cotton candy, and circus souvenirs. In just moments, George will welcome the audience.

Colby Katz
George Hanneford III presents Carol, one of three trained elephants owned by the Hanneford Family Circus
Colby Katz
George Hanneford III presents Carol, one of three trained elephants owned by the Hanneford Family Circus

But right now, his bottom lip is pushed out and quivering like a child's. He has been talking about David Dickerson, a handler and groom who lived and worked with the Hannefords for nine years. Dickerson died June 20, 1990, in an accident when he and George were leading the family's three elephants from their enclosure to a Swap Shop performance. The tragedy devastated George, but it's the subsequent exploitation of his death that makes his blood boil.

For more than five years, the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida has crusaded against the Hannefords and their circus. On the 11th anniversary of Dickerson's death, the Pompano Beach-based nonprofit staged a mock funeral for the animal handler. Motorists streaming past the Swap Shop on Sunrise Boulevard on that date saw a visually arresting tableau at the entrance -- 15 people dressed in black standing silently around a casket.

George shakes his head slowly, angry as he remembers the scene. He fastens his lips together into a grim line and stares out into the distance. "There aren't words to describe it," he says finally. "It was just the lowest, cheapest thing you could possibly do."

The Animal Rights Foundation views Dickerson's death as a local example of what they believe is a common occurrence: an elephant turning on its trainers and handlers. The group believes that Dickerson's death -- like the more than 40 such incidents internationally in the past 12 years -- proves that the Hannefords' elephants are unhappy with their lot, despise their keepers, and will kill, rampage, and try to escape if given half a chance.

George says working Dickerson's death into that story line is fiction and unfair. The tears George battles before the Thanksgiving show are about Dickerson, but they are also about feeling misunderstood and misjudged himself.

Circus people traditionally live apart from the wider culture. They live with animals, for one. At nearly all times, they are either performing, practicing, or taking care of the animals. Yet George is acutely aware of how animal-rights activists regard his profession and his family. And he admits that such organizations have been more effective in marketing their message than his family or other circuses have been. Of course, that's their job. "They're professional mudslingers," he says. "I'm with the animals. That's what I do 24 hours a day."

When he meets someone for the first time, George knows to expect certain questions. "They'll ask if we abuse the animals," he says. "I know it's coming. It's just a stereotype, but it's a very powerful one. Everyone loves animals."

George recently spent two hours trying to convince a woman at his gym that circus animals are not necessarily abused simply because they perform in a circus. It was a futile effort.

After eight generations in the circus industry, George Hanneford III and his sister Catherine may be the last generation of Hannefords to work as traditional circus performers. In part, that's because the traditional circus just isn't the big draw it used to be. Whether they're watching animals jump through hoops or aerialists fly through the air, audiences feel they know what to expect, even if the feats are still as dangerous and mind-boggling as they were generations ago.

The circus with cultural buzz today is Canada's animal-free, seamlessly theatrical Cirque du Soleil -- and even it doesn't have the must-see appeal it did five years ago. Meanwhile, traditional circuses, like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, are putting together more lavishly choreographed, Cirque du Soleil-type productions and relying less on individual circus acts to draw crowds. Thus, the Hanneford siblings enter the full flower of their careers gamely presenting traditions regarded by the public as quaint, old-fashioned, and a tad outdated -- if not cruel.

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