(photo credit:Hadas Parush)
Luis Muñoz hopes his son will go into the family business, a proud tradition he inherited from his great-grandfather.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Muñoz, wearing a red fighter pilot suit and red leather boots, stretches back in his chair, scratches his belly and casts his gaze around the government quarter in Jerusalem.
Most sane people, however, would be wary of passing on the job. Every day, twice a day, Muñoz blasts out of a 10-meter cannon at 72 kilometers an hour, soaring above the audience for split seconds until he lands in a mesh net high above the stage of the traveling circus. Muñoz is a 56- year-old, third-generation human cannonball, and nothing would make him prouder than watching his son take over the family business.
Muñoz, who has just finished a stint in Jerusalem with the Americano Circus in a red, white, and blue tent nestled between government ministries, is part of a dying breed of family circus performers. As local circuses have become scarcer, families who perform and travel together are finding it harder and harder to continue in the business.
Muñoz blames the decline of local circuses on the video games, iPads, and various electronics that bombard today’s youth with computer-generated special effects.
It used to be that the entire town would come out to see the circus, he remembers.
The Americano Circus’s fading tent and lackluster musical numbers echo the sentiment that the golden age of the local circus has passed.
But Muñoz couldn’t imagine a better life.
“The best way to live your life is to make money doing something you enjoy,” he says. “I enjoy free time.”
He estimates that, not including the 10 minutes of preparation before each performance, his work day lasts about three seconds. “Why should I work for eight hours a day? This way I get to travel the world – this is my fifth time around the world,” he adds.
Muñoz still gets nervous every time he performs. The act is dangerous: widelyquoted British circus historian A.H. Coxe counted more than 30 deaths out of 50 people in the human cannonball profession, which was first unveiled in London in 1877. Muñoz has suffered a torn rotator cuff and a broken leg from bad falls.
Although he won’t divulge the inner workings of his cannon, a closely-guarded trade secret, he waxes eloquent on what crosses his mind before each performance.
A minute before he climbs into the cannon, he meditates, says the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish and takes deep breaths. Once inside, he communicates with his assistant, who activates the cannon as the audience counts down.
Though the performance lasts a few seconds for the audience, time stretches out for Muñoz as he sails overhead. With more and more experience, the time in the air actually seems to be getting longer, Muñoz explains, as he times the fly, tuck and tumble with even more precision and confidence. “If you see Superman, you want to be Superman, right?” he chuckles, still dressed in his fraying costume as he chain smokes and gulps coffee between performances.
One of the challenges of traveling the world: his audiences do the countdown in different languages.
Every time he arrives in a new country, he repeats the foreign numbers to himself at least 10 times to make sure he knows them well enough.
Interviewing Muñoz next to his circus trailer is a little bit like being inside a psychedelic dream. As we sit in between the costume trailers and the trailers belonging to other performers, snatches of John Souza marches mix with a bad rendition of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” sung by a clown in gold-sequined drag. Once, as Muñoz is describing his father’s circus act, I see out of the corner of my eye three men wearing grizzly bear costumes riding silver bicycles toward the prop trailer.
Before the videographer can turn the camera around, they’re gone, so I’m not even sure they were real. At another point a scantily clad Russian woman in fishnet stockings saunters by and starts taunting Muñoz’s dog, Buddy, with her feather tiara. Performers hurry past on mini-motorcycles or unicycles while clutching bowling pins, and the eight-member Chinese acrobatic troupe thunders by at regular intervals for costume changes.
“Show business is just great; there’s always something happening,” Muñoz says, gesturing at the backstage pandemonium surrounding his trailer. He loves the circus drama – who’s dating whom, who’s angry with whom – and the ever-changing backdrop of different cities. He won’t pick a favorite destination, since it changes depending on his mood. For excitement he loves New York and Tokyo, for the fishing he loves Canada, for the food he loves Spain. In Israel, his temporary home until December as the Americano Circus travels the country, he loves Eilat and the Red Sea.
Though the Americano Circus, like many other local circuses, is made up of individual acts hired by the production company, they will perform together until December and have formed an ad hoc community.
But the close ties he’s formed with the other circus performers, with whom he celebrates birthdays and holidays, do not displace the loneliness of being away from his family.
“I love this life for the family life,” he explains. “You always live together, and I think that’s beautiful.”
Muñoz says that when he was a child, his parents were always around for meals and adventures during the daytime when they weren’t performing. “Growing up, I was always doing things with my father,” he remembers, gazing off into the distance. Fishing, hiking, barbecuing – everything was done together.
But after he divorced his trapeze-artist wife seven years ago, she took his two children, now 18 and 19, to live in Florida.
“I’m very old-fashioned, I don’t like my kids in school, I don’t like them to be influenced by friends,” he says. “I didn’t miss not doing drugs, because my father was always watching.”
The circus family mentality has clear roles: a father is responsible for training his children, helping them acquire equipment for their acts, teaching them the ways of circus life. After he’s no longer physically able to perform, his children take over, and more importantly, take care of him, he explains. But with his children in Florida, he feels like the chain of generations has been cruelly broken.
Muñoz, who is staunchly Catholic, says he often prays during the loneliest times. “Why, God, did you punish me? Why have you let me be on my own?” he asks.
He says his childhood was typical for circus families: he and his siblings were home-schooled, traveling with the circus and performing from a young age. At seven, he started out with a trampoline act along with his father and two brothers, before becoming a clown at age nine. As a teenager, he moved on to a low-wire act. In his late 20s, as his father got ready to retire and the human cannonball siblings drifted to different circuses, Muñoz began his stint as the human cannonball. It wasn’t just about tradition, he admits; the human cannonball is one of the highest-paying circus acts.
The circus runs in Muñoz’s blood. His great-grandfather pre-dated the big circus tents, but owned a number of bears and would travel from village to village in rural Spain, staging shows in town squares. His grandfather had a street act with performing dogs and performed as a human cannonball in the early days of the cannonball craze. His grandfather had 21 children, Muñoz swears all borne by his grandmother, who gave birth to her first child at 14. All 21 children traveled together in the circus throughout Spain.
After his grandfather retired, Muñoz’s father, the eldest, took over the cannonball act. He traveled the through Spain and the rest of the world and finally decided to make Florida his home base. Muñoz and his three siblings were born in America. For the three or four months a year when he’s not traveling, Muñoz has a home in Spain and an apartment in Florida, near his kids.
His son is visiting Israel to take advantage of the sixday break while the circus moves from Jerusalem to Modi’in. His son is set to start at the University of Florida in the fall, though Muñoz is holding out hope that he might want to join the circus after college and follow in his father’s footsteps. Muñoz’s daughter has also expressed some interest in working in the circus, though she’s still in Florida for the time being.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than a father and son working together,” he says.
A 30-year veteran of cannonballing, the stocky circus performer knows his body won’t hold up forever.
Retirement is an option, though he’d rather switch to a less physical circus act before he leaves the circus world for good.
As Muñoz gets older, the act takes more of a toll on his body. Some days he has a headache, sometimes he feels sick. And sometimes, he says, he just doesn’t feel like being blasted out of a cannon. But he always performs.
“It’s mind over matter,” he explains, shrugging.
“The show must go on.”