by Yale Richmond
It’s not often that an embassy sponsors a tour by a circus but that’s exactly what happened in 1968 when the State Department sent an American circus to the Soviet Union under the US-USSR cultural exchange agreement.
The Soviet Union had been sending its circuses to the United States, with great financial as well as popular success, and someone in Washington came up with the bright idea that the United States should reciprocate by sending an American circus to the Soviet Union. And so, as the American Embassy’s Counselor for Press and Culture, I found myself working with the Soviets to ensure a successful three-city tour — Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad — for a Mills Bros. American circus, a small but very professional circus, with clowns, horses, trapeze artists, and shapely women in tight fitting bathing suits.
Circus is considered an art form in Russia and other East European countries, and as an approved form of entertainment for the masses, it was heavily subsidized by their governments. So Soviet officials, as well as audiences, were very curious about an American circus and what it could do.
Trapeze artists and their skills were admired by Soviet audiences, but the Americans brought something the Soviets had not seen before. Soviet trapeze artists usually performed with a safety net below them, but the daring Americans on their flying trapezes performed without a net. Instead they had a man standing below, prepared to break a fall should it be necessary as the trapeze artists, in a popular song of the time told us, “floated through the air with the greatest of ease.”
Also new to the Soviets were the American circus’s chimpanzees and their hilarious antics. In one act, a chimp played the part of a child who was seated by his parents on a chamber pot. At the conclusion of the act, the chimp rose, turned his potty upside down, and placed it on his head like a hat. The Russian audience howled with laughter, but a high-ranking embassy officer who was in the audience did not think it was so funny, and he instructed me to tell the American circus to delete that act, an order which I ignored. And as evidence of effectiveness in cultural exchange, the Russians, some time thereafter, introduced chimps in their own circus acts.
I learned a lot about circuses, including the fact that in the Soviet Union they were run mostly by Jews fulfilling their historic role as impresarios. And in my reporting to State on the tour of the American circus, I signed off as “Circus Attaché,” undoubtedly the only one in the long history of the U.S. Foreign Service.