Juggling Life and Health Under the Big Top
Paul Binder of the Big Apple Circus has fended off type 2 like a lion tamer
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, get ready for the greatest story on earth. It involves a young boy from Brooklyn, street performers, enough animals to populate Noah’s ark, and a big top. It’s the story of how Paul Binder, Dartmouth and Columbia grad and television industry up-and-comer, joined a traveling mime troupe, juggled on European street corners, and eventually created one of the most lauded American circuses.
Off to Join the Circus
In a roundabout way, Paul Binder has Merv Griffin to thank for his career. Binder had spent his post-undergrad years as a stage manager for Julia Child’s pioneering TV cooking show The French Chef, paused his career to get an MBA at Columbia University, then nabbed a job as a talent coordinator for TV host Griffin. Binder was on a trip to San Francisco with Griffin when he first saw the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform. “They were just filled with energy,” he says.
Binder auditioned for the troupe on a Friday. By Sunday, he was packing his New York City belongings and heading west to train as the troupe’s newest juggler. There, Binder met Michael Christensen, a fellow juggler and vagabond who invited Binder to join him on street corners around the world. The pair took their show from San Francisco, across the United States, and then to countless European cities from London to Istanbul. Paris, though, transformed the street jugglers into a bona fide circus act through a serendipitous encounter with Nouveau Cirque.
Unlike American circuses, which at the time featured three or more rings that showed different performances at the same time, Nouveau Cirque used a single ring and featured one act at a time. “I’d seen three-ring circuses like Ringling Brothers growing up,” Binder says. “But the intimacy and theatricality of the one ring—you can move the audience with that.”
The experience was a revelation for Binder, who gave himself a choice: Stay in Europe to perform in the one-ring circus or bring the Nouveau Cirque concept to America.
Tossing His Hat in the Ring
When Binder and Christensen began the Big Apple Circus in 1977, New York City was in a financial crisis and David Berkowitz (aka Son of Sam) was fast becoming one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. A little childlike wonder seemed to be just what the city needed because the 800-seat tent filled on a regular basis.
Binder’s one-ring brainchild gave new meaning to the American idea of a circus in the same way Quebec-born Cirque du Soleil did later. The long-running show has afforded Binder countless adventures: that time the sea lions refused to leave their tent because of the rain (umbrellas, Binder learned, are scary monsters to sea lions). Or the time he trained actress Glenn Close for her role in Broadway’s Barnum. Then there was the time in the late ’80s when news of the Chinese government’s violent reaction to the Tiananmen Square protests led acrobats from a Chinese troupe performing with the Big Apple Circus to disappear in the middle of the night in order to avoid returning to China.
Nearly 40 years after its opening, people still flock to the Big Apple Circus, which now fills between 1,580 and 1,720 seats per performance. But selling tickets isn’t only about making money. “We were very focused on the joy [the circus] can bring into people’s lives,” Binder says.
That’s why, at the same time the Big Apple Circus first introduced Americans to the one-ring show, it also began to teach inner-city kids the circus arts through its nonprofit Circus After School. The program was the first in what has now become a long list of nonprofit ventures: Circus of the Senses, a free performance for kids with hearing and vision impairment; Vaudeville Caravan, which travels to nursing homes; and the pièce de résistance, the Clown Care Unit, which aims to cheer hospitalized children with silly circus acts.
Come Rain or Shine
Despite the glitz of the show, there’s nothing glamorous about the life of a circus performer. “Living in recreational vehicles, bad weather, all-night drives, aching muscles, and broken props. … Waking up, eating, and sleeping only after the horses, dogs, and elephants have been cared for,” Binder writes in Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion: And Other Uncommon Tales from the Founder of the Big Apple Circus, his autobiographical compendium of stories from the big top. “No matter what happens, no matter how grim or forbidding, [circus performers] know there’s a way through it, a creative solution, a new approach.”
That attitude served Binder well when he was diagnosed with prediabetes more than 15 years ago. He had been uncharacteristically tired at the time, forced to rest between the two to three shows he did each day. He fared better on days when he exercised, but workouts were rare, and while juggling is a total-body workout, Binder’s days as ringmaster had left him more or less sedentary.
Still, the diagnosis was unexpected. “I was totally surprised, but it turns out my mother and grandmother had type 2 diabetes,” he says. Binder spent little time on self-pity, opting instead to take his doctor’s orders—lose weight, stat—seriously. He immediately went on metformin, revamped his diet and exercise habits, and camped out in a medical library to research diabetes. Within a month, he’d dropped 30 pounds.
While he still has prediabetes, his doctor treats it as type 2, and Binder has stuck to his treatment plan, including metformin, even after the weight loss and resulting drop in his A1C. That number now hovers around 6.3 (6.5 is the diagnosis point for diabetes), which Binder credits to his weight maintenance. “I notice [that] if my weight goes up even 5 or 6 pounds, my A1C increases,” he says. To stay slim, Binder sticks to a diet of fruits and vegetables—including the green fruit and vegetable juice he sips daily—whole grains, fish, and chicken. He hits the gym three times a week and has a weekly physical therapy session for his achy knees that includes time on a stationary bike.
Of course, Binder’s attitude is a boon to his health, and the performers’ work ethic is an inspiration. Binder may make diabetes care look effortless, but “it’s still an effort. There are days I don’t feel like exercising, but I better do it,” he says.
The Show Must Go On
For more than a decade after his prediabetes diagnosis, Binder ruled the ring: bright red coat with long tails, stiff black top hat, and a smile that said “This is going to be fun.” In 2009, he stepped out of the ring and away from the day-to-day management of the circus. “It was an enormous undertaking, 24–7,” he says.
But while he may not welcome ladies and gentlemen or boys and girls to the show each night, he’s still involved in Big Apple Circus operations. He now travels the world searching for circus acts and attends circus festivals in cities such as Paris, Budapest, and Monte Carlo.
It’s not the type of life he’d willingly give up—especially not when his hard work results in a few hours of childlike joy for people of all ages. Even after 36 years in the business, Binder, 71, still regards the circus with a sense of wonder and awe. The adventure, the quirky cast of characters, the thrilling feats that seem to defy the laws of physics—they’re all part of what he says makes the circus experience so spectacular. “By stepping out of your day-to-day life and leaving behind the everyday world, you get magic,” says Binder. “You’re seeing the extraordinary nature of your fellow human beings.”