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American circus history relived at high-tech Mizpah Shrine Circus

More Information

What: Mizpah Shrine Circus
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23; 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24; 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25; 1 and 5:45 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26
Where: The Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, 4000 Parnell Ave.
Admission: Tickets range from $12 to $20 per person
More information: Visit Mizpah Shrine Circus' website

Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 12:01 am

Starting as a showcase of horsemanship from soldiers, and developing through freak shows and displays of marginalized cultures, the circus has a long and fascinating history filled with superstitions, myths and some lesser-known truths.

Fort Wayne will have a chance to witness an important part of circus history at the Mizpah Shrine Circus, a fraternal fundraiser in which proceeds benefit the local Mizpah Shrine and its many programs. There will be seven performances at various times Jan. 23-26 at Memorial Coliseum. Tickets range from $12 to $20 per person.

One lesser-known truth is the history behind Fort Wayne’s own Mizpah Shrine Circus, produced by TZ Productions. Thanks to a longstanding partnership, TZ Productions has been performing in the Summit City for decades, and Fort Wayne has been an integral part of the circus’ history.

TZ Productions is a production company built on the blood, sweat and tears of owner Jean “Tarzan” Zerbini.

Entering the ring

The earliest recorded circus performers in the Zerbini family tree date to 1763 in Italy. Today, more than 10 generations have had a part in bringing the circus to towns around the United States.

The current owner, 70-year-old Jean “Tarzan” Zerbini, was born in North Africa and started working with the circus as soon as he could. The family moved to the United States in 1961 and were educated in the American-style of circus when the family joined the Mills Brothers Circus.

But Tarzan wanted to shake up the circus industry. Instead of the regular lion performing act with the traditional props, such as a whip, gun or chair, Tarzan used no extra equipment. The act took off.

The next year, Jean began calling himself by the stage name “Tarzan” and soon found his Jane, French trapeze artist Jacqueline Souren.

TZ Productions’ general manager, Larry Solheim, has been working for the company for more than 20 years. He never thought he’d end up in a traveling circus, but he took a job as a musician and soon ended up in management. He stayed because of the passion, hard work and dedication he learned from Tarzan over the years.

“Back then, he wore a loincloth, he did comedy and he worked with more than 20 lions at a time,” Solheim said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, the circus was the mainstream entertainment option. He became the rock star of the circus business. He was a leading personality.”

But the good times didn’t last forever. In the circus business, there’s no telling what type of accidents can happen, but the worst happened — Tarzan was attacked by a an 800-pound lion.

It was 1967 in Cleveland. He suffered from wounds requiring more than 500 stitches, but, in the Tarzan fashion, he returned to the ring the next day for his performance.

When his father, Charles, passed away in 1969, Tarzan began working with the Pollack Brothers Circus and later with Hubert Castle.

Then in 1979, Tarzan thought his dream had come true. Castle sold his circus to him for $250,000.

What seemed like a dream come true quickly turned into a nightmare when the company sunk $1.5 million in debt. After losing nearly everything he owned, including his home and wife, Tarzan payed off creditors and went back on the road.

“He made this the biggest circus they’ve ever had,” Solheim said. “He didn’t want to make money, he just wanted to make the greatest show.”

Luckily, 1984 was a great year for the crew. Making partnerships with Canadian circus acts, the team took the circus to the Great White North. He moved the company headquarters to Joplin, Mo., and married Ringling Bros. trapeze and sway pole artist Elizabeth “Lisi” Bauer.

Since the ’80s, the troupe has been performing around the country for Shrine groups and other organizations that hire them. Performances reach approximately 1.3 million people in over 70 cities coast to coast.

Solheim works closely with ringmaster and performance director Richard Curtis to determine the special needs required for each production.

“The Zerbinis do it all because this is their family heritage,” Solheim said. “They want to make sure everything is done well. His dream was always on quality and not of quantity.”

Today, Tarzan is the president of the Circus Producers Association of North America and he spends much of his time traveling with the circus and enjoying time with his family.

The circus today

While the circus is extremely different than when it first began, TZ Productions has done a lot to keep up with the ever-changing times.

Steve Trump, circus director with the Shrine, has been working with TZ Productions for many years. He said his group’s volunteers spend all year preparing for the Fort Wayne circus.

“I’m just proud we can bring good, clean, family-friendly entertainment to the Fort Wayne area,” Trump said. “When you stand in front of the building and you see all those little kids come in, it’s just great. That’s what I’m here for.”

Trump said this is one of a few entertainment options in the area that can be affordable for big families.

“Even if you get the best tickets, and that puts you right on the floor, it’s $20 apiece, and that’s less than $100 for a family of four and parking,” he said.

This year, TZ Productions added a new video projection system to the show that is modified to work with new lighting designs and a new sound system.

As the concepts and artist bookings are being finalized, work begins early on staging and set design. Each production has unique requirements. Elements such as ring construction, flooring, backstage layouts, lighting and sound have to be carefully coordinated since a change in one area most often affects another.

Solheim puts together the technical elements of the show, which include everything from staging and rigging to lighting design, musical composition and editing.

The circus opens its season in Fort Wayne with a six-piece live band. Fort Wayne is the only performance that has a live band. It’s also the location where crews record the performance for the circus’ other shows throughout the year.

“There’s not many live bands of this caliber on any traveling circus anymore,” Solheim said. “These musicians are top players, and we bring in people from around the country. It’s amazing when you go through 150 pieces of music, and these musicians are really good and can go with the flow. It’s really special to the Fort Wayne circus.”

The lighting systems are constantly modified to fit each production, combining conventional and intelligent lighting, stage effects and pyrotechnics to give the each show a unique look.

“It’s a very spectacular show,” Solheim said.