City Paper: Everyone’s heard the slogan, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it.” What possessed you to think 12 years ago that you could start a black-owned and -operated circus, and have it enjoy the success that the UniverSoul Circus has?
Cedric Walker: It’s funny that you said, “If you can believe it, you can do it.” It started with three of my close associates that I called together for the purpose of trying to create something new and different that involved a lot of the [strengths] of black entertainment over the years—the dance, a lot of the different things we’ve done. I wanted to do something that was totally different that really showcased the depth of black entertainment and black culture. So we went to the library, and we started researching black entertainment from the turn of the century, and we found that back in 1894 there was a black circus.
CP: Where did that circus run? What part of the country?
CW: It was in the Wisconsin area. The show went from 1894 to 1899. Initially we were researching black vaudevillian acts and we found out that they had animal acts. So we had a meeting, and I suggested that we bring these animal acts on. And when I suggested the animals, someone else said, “If we’re bringing animals into the show, let’s just do a circus.” That’s where the idea was born.
From there I started going to the library reading about circuses. While I was reading about it, I was also working on a theatrical play we had on the road at the time—A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I was in New York at a cultural event, with black vendors and booths of different things, and out of the corner of my eye I saw this booth that said “Africans and Circus Rings.” This guy had a complete history—he had memorabilia, he had pictures of black lion tamers, wire walkers, trapeze artists, black everything from the turn of the century, and I was in disbelief. So I said to him: “I know you’re going to think I’m nuts, but I want to start a circus. And I really need to know if you will allow me to take pictures of your entire setup here, because I want it to live and breathe around me. So I’m going to blow these pictures up and put them all over my office.” And then every day I saw a black lion tamer, black high wire, a black
clown . . . and the circus came alive.
CP: What is your career background? When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
CW: No circus background at all. Career background . . . I started in 1972, ’73 with the Commodores in a nightclub called the Black Forest Club in Tuskegee, Alabama, and [I] became their production manager.
I think what’s important when you talk about background, and you talk about growth and aspiration for young people, [is] to understand that it comes from the desire to [be]. When we are young, we want to be a policeman, we want to be a fireman, [that] we want to be is what’s important. We want to contribute. I held onto that aspiration of wanting to be. Because I started out very humbly. I mean, I was washing dishes in a nightclub in ’72, ’73 when I was 17 or 18 years old and had a job in a club where the Commodores were the house band. And I volunteered to help them bring their equipment in. I volunteered to help do other things. Even though I was in the kitchen doing the dishes, I was unloading trucks when the band showed up, I volunteered to pass out fliers to help bring people into the club. All of those things I volunteered for paid off. The Commodores asked me to go on the road with them.
CP: So when you were a kid, you didn’t know what you wanted to be specifically?
CW: No, I just held onto that wanting to be, and that took me through a series of exploring things, and when I got with the Commodores at 18, I knew when I felt it. I walked in there and I saw young men wanting to be something. Because I grew up in the inner city of Baltimore—Edmondson Avenue and Denison Street, 500 block of Denison Street—and I didn’t see that vision [there]. I didn’t have a big perspective, but I still wanted to be. And in my neighborhood I learned teamwork, I learned to win, I learned drive. We won every baseball game. We won every football game.
CP: What kind of financial help did you need to get UniverSoul Circus off the ground?
CW: That’s another story about if you can see it, it can be done. I started by saving money from doing A Good Man Is Hard to Find. That was in ’90 through ’92. I took a very low salary and I saved all of my money and I planned to do this. I wanted to create something without having to beg banks. And I saved three or four hundred grand, and I got investors to give me another two to three hundred grand, and I lost $700,000 the first show. The first show cost me $750,000, and we only took in $200,000 or something.
CP: Because attendance wasn’t what
CW: Attendance was nothing. People didn’t believe. People [were like], “A black circus—are you kidding me?” I remember going to one radio station and the disc jockey was saying, “OK, so you’re having a black circus. I can imagine your tightrope being a clothesline and your net being a mattress and . . . ” I had to give away the show and lose money for years.
We would go into cities and sell 10 tickets, but I would have the place packed—because I knew it was good, and people would go out and talk. That first seven days I would give away, and the last three or four I would make just enough to pay the bills and get out. You know how they say you have to pray for everything? I spent most of my time in the portable toilet on my knees. I learned how to get on my knees in a portable john—because I had to. And [the Lord] came through every time.
CP: Are more people of color coming to the UniverSoul Circus saying, “I want to be a circus performer”?
CW: Yes. This circus has caused the industry to look at black performers differently, from around the world. It has caused the industry to hire more black performers—not just [for] me and my circus. What we have done is create competition for ourselves. There are two other black circuses that have started this year.
CP: Now that the circus is successful, do you see yourself branching out into other forms of entertainment?
CW: I want a black ice show, I want a black variety show, I want a black New Year’s Eve—drop the ball in Harlem. I want a black Bourbon Street. All of our contributions over the years need to be collected and explored. Young people need to know around the world—young black kids, white kids, Asian kids, French kids—they need to know about us.
I went to the Shrine circus at the Fifth Regiment Armory when I was young, and I saw black people putting up the tent and doing things [like that], so I didn’t aspire to do anything more than that. Your images set your capacities to dream and to believe. Certainly coming from Baltimore, even though I aspired to be, the sad thing was what I aspired to be as a teenager was what I saw around Edmondson Avenue and Denison Street. And that wasn’t very positive. But I still aspired to be. And I think that what you see is what expands your capacity to aspire. The images in the streets limit those brilliant young people in the streets of Baltimore. I was one of those people on the corner, in the streets with weapons, with drugs . . . I was there. The images limited my mind. But the minute I saw something different, that was it. Those images weren’t important anymore.
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