Big Tent Childhood: Growing up in the Circus

Melinda Haywood Pavlata's father, Phil Marsh, was the band leader for the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, where Whoopi Goldberg once performed. Her mother Rhea was a belly dancer who moved to Greece when Pavlata was 7 and her parents split. She divided her time between the two parents.

"My parents didn't believe in babysitters," she recalled. "You went with your parents and did what they were doing. I was always at the gigs of my parents. I would fall asleep on the coats behind the speakers while my dad was performing. Or I would fall asleep on the table next to the Coke bottle while my mom was performing."

"It wasn't a chaotic life," Pavlata added. "That was the life they chose. This was their artistic path and I understood that as a kid. And that I was lucky to have those parents."

Pavlata said she was encouraged to follow her own path, which led her to a Ph.D. in medieval French literature, but found she could not escape her roots. Today she is a belly dancer known as Melina and performs with Circus Flora, balancing a sword on a dagger clutched between her jaws.

Danielle Lubin, 23, took the path furthest from that of her father, Barry Lubin, who is Grandma the Clown for the Big Apple Circus. She is a secretary for a law firm in New Jersey.

Until she was 7, Lubin was on the road with her parents, who met at Ringling Bros. when he was a clown and she was a dancer. She attended class in the "one-ring schoolhouse," actually a trailer, with kids of varying ages.

When her younger sister Emily came along, the family got a house in suburban New Jersey and mother Bert stayed home while Barry continued to travel. Danielle would join her father in the circus during the summers. She performed in high school plays and speech competitions, but never felt she had the talent for the circus.

"I really loved growing up in the circus," she said. "You really can't help but be close to your family. I'd be sitting there eating my lunch, and my dad would be there putting on his makeup. It was part of my daily routine that I would watch him be transformed. So it was absolutely normal. It was never weird to me that, Hey, my dad's going to go get in a dress and make up. Cool."

For actress Candice Bergen, growing up with her ventriloquist father Edgar Bergen and his famous dummy, Charlie McCarthy, was sometimes weird. Her father got his start in vaudeville but quickly became a media sensation and Charlie became a star. contacted Bergen but she was unavailable to comment for the story.

"Of course I hated him," Bergen said recently about Charlie when she was a keynote speaker at Brown University. "I was routinely greeted with, 'So you must be Charlie's sister. I bet you're no dummy!'"

Charlie even had a bedroom next to Bergen's, with his own scaled-down furniture. "There are photos of Charlie and me both in Dr. Denton pajamas, ready to be put to bed," Bergen told US Weekly. "It's a really sinister photograph -- I mean, it's so strange."

Such stories make Marshall, the family therapist, think that some performer parents put their desire for attention above the needs of their kids.

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