Big Tent Childhood: Growing up in the Circus

Christian Bale lived an unorthodox, nomadic childhood with a circus clown mom.


July 24, 2008— -- Just about everyone has heard the old joke about running away and joining the circus. But what if your parents are the ones in the circus?

Some circus kids run away to a more normal life. Others join their parents under the Big Top. And some, like Christian Bale, seek out an even bigger spotlight and become A-list performers.

Bale's unconventional childhood came to light earlier this week when he was arrested by London police for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister. His mother, Jenny, is a former circus performer who worked as a clown and a dancer, riding elephants and introducing circus acts.

His father, David, ran away from his South African home in his teens to see the world and became a Royal Air Force pilot in Britain before taking a series of odd jobs that moved the family all over England and Portugal.

Bale was 2 when the family left Wales, where he was born, and took up their nomadic lifestyle. The Batman star has said he lived in 15 different towns by the time he was 15. He recalled in interviews being part of a circus caravan at age 7, surrounded by beautiful women wearing fishnet stockings and peacock head-dresses. His first kiss, he told a reporter, was with a young Polish trapeze artist called Barta.

"Circus performers do live outside the bounds and rules of society," said psychoanalyst and family therapist Bethany Marshall. "They don't put down roots, they don't give their children normal environments to grow up in. The children experience repeated losses: They're never in one school, they don't make consistent friends. In some ways, it's inherent disregard for the children. And maybe that disregard carried over into the current situation."

The current situation Marshall refers to is Bale's arrest on Tuesday for allegedly assaulting his mother and one of his three older sisters, Sharon. He was grilled by cops for four hours before he was released without being formally charged. Bale said through his lawyers that the allegations were false.

It remains unclear what happened between Bale and his mother and sister, but British newspapers are reporting that Bale shoved either his sister or mother during a heated argument in his swanky suite at the five-star Dorchester Hotel on Sunday, the night before the red-carpeted London premiere of "The Dark Knight."

The family feud, according to the British papers, was sparked after Sharon asked to borrow money and mother Jenny insulted Bale's wife Sibi, a former model and assistant to Winona Ryder.

A friend of Bale's told the Daily Mail, "Things got out of control and he now says he wishes he just left the room. Normally Christian would just call a friend and go out to a pub to cool off. But he was literally trapped into this confrontation with his mother and sister because there was an army of paparazzi and fans outside."

Marshall wonders if Bale's mother, a former performer, may have been jealous of her son's success.

"She had to know this was going to hit the tabloids," she said. "Given that she was a performer and she brings charges just prior to one of the biggest nights of his life, it makes you wonder, 'What are the family dynamics?'"

The dynamics are different in circus families but not necessarily worse than in more conventional ones.

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.

"Public figures, whether they are performers, politicians or preachers, often prioritize the admiration of the crowd over the needs of their own children, which makes their children feel dismissed, unimportant and angry," she said. "Children feel that they are always competing with the crowd that they can never measure up to. I think that's what Candice Bergen was talking about. The dummy brings admiration of the fans, money in the household and gives the parent a sense of purpose. What child can compete against that?"

It also explains why some kids genuinely follow in their footsteps and some end up chasing success to make up for something they lacked as kids.

Bale caught the acting bug at age 9 when his older sister Louise landed a role on the London stage. After several of his own stage roles, Bale's big break came at 13 when Steven Speilberg chose him for the lead role in "Empire of the Sun."

Shortly after, he moved to Hollywood with his dad, who became his manager, and his parents divorced. His father later remarried feminist icon Gloria Steinem and became an outspoken animal rights activist, while his mother lived a more modest life as a reflexologist in England. The British papers say mother and son do not appear to be close.

"He could be just really angry at her legitimately, for childhood wounds, a nomadic lifestyle, parental divorce," Marshall said.

But Bello Nock, the Ringling Bros. clown who graces the poster, believes not every circus kid has to have an unhappy ending. A seventh-generation performer, he has raised his three children, ages 19, 15 and 12, on the road their entire lives.

"Normal is what you make it," he said. "I try to pay attention not only to what my needs are but what theirs are too."

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