Alum ran away to start Big Apple Circus

by Charles Davant | 7/19/96 5:00am

Everyone dreams of running off to join the circus, but one Dartmouth alumnus actually did.

But Paul Binder '63 not only joined the circus, he started his own. Binder founded the Big Apple Circus in 1977, and still serves as its artistic director and ringmaster.

The Big Apple Circus will be performing in Hanover through Sunday.

Strolling around the almost-empty big top on Lyme Road, Binder described how the Hopkins Center for Fine Arts wrought an enormous change in his life. The Hop first opened during Binder's junior year.

"The Hop was an amazing influence on my life and my career," he said. "It was Dartmouth College saying 'We approve of this sort of thing, the performing arts. It is a worthwhile pursuit.'"

Binder said attending Dartmouth was "One of the best things that ever happened to me."

Binder, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., was one of the first Dartmouth students to perform at the Hop, since he worked in the Hopkins Repertory Theatre the summer the center opened. Binder graduated Dartmouth with a degree in history. But Binder's B.A. degree was not the last he would earn at Dartmouth.

In 1988 the College gave him an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts. Binder also received an M.B.A. from Columbia University.

After a short stint at the Boston University School of Theatre, Binder quit to work in television. He was the stage manager for Julia Child's PBS show "The French Chef."

After earning his M.B.A. at Columbia, Binder became associate producer for the television show "Jeopardy." He later worked as a talent scout for the Merv Griffin show.

But Binder said he was not satisfied working for other people.

"I had a tremendous urge to be creating my own stuff," he said. "So I auditioned for the San Francisco Mime Troupe."

Binder was hired, and trained as a juggler and comedian. There he worked with Michael Christensen, with whom he would create the Big Apple Circus.

"In 1973 we decided to use the juggling act as a device to travel around the world," he said. "We started in London, and went to Istanbul, Paris and Rome, working on streetcorners."

"I had an enormous desire to see all the places we had studied at Dartmouth," he said. "Fewer people did that back then. We were pioneers."

While they were in Paris, their act caught the eye of a talent scout from the musical Casino de Paris, who put their act on stage. A famous French ballerina then put them on television.

"The next day we got a call from the Nouveau Cirque de Paris," Binder said. Binder and Christensen toured France with the circus and soon fell in love with the lifestyle.

"On the first night I remember running out of the ring saying, 'We're in the circus! Isn't this wonderful,'" he said. "I could spend the rest of my life doing this."

After three seasons with the Cirque de Paris, Binder decided he missed the United States. He and Christensen moved back to New York City, bringing an idea with them. That idea would become the non-profit Big Apple Circus.

"We came back and wrote-up a proposal for a permanent one-ring circus to be held in New York City," he said. Binder found corporations and people willing to fund the endeavor, and the circus opened.

The Big Apple Circus now spends 12 weeks a year at New York City's Lincoln Center and travels as far away as Chicago, visits 24 other cities along the way.

And it comes to Hanover every year. "That's because I went to Dartmouth," Binder said.

The circus came to town for the first time 14 years ago, when the big top was set up in the middle of the Dartmouth Green. Binder said the circus long outgrew the space available downtown.

"I have a great passion for Dartmouth College," he said. "I have done whatever I could for Dartmouth."

Besides bringing the circus to Hanover, Binder has helped the College with fundraising. When Dartmouth's Will to Excel fundraising campaign was officially kicked off at Lincoln Center, Dartmouth officials asked Binder to be the master of ceremonies.

Binder's goals are simple.

"My aspiration is simply to create finer shows," he said.

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