NAUGATUCK — Every child dreams of running off and joining a circus. Naugatuck native Chris Allison actually did. Now, he and his wife run a circus and perform all over the world.
At a young age Chris knew he wanted to be a clown when he saw the Ringling Brothers Circus on a fifth grade field trip with Cross Street School.
“A light bulb just went off in my head,” Chris said.
He went straight home and taught himself to juggle. Shortly after, he joined a clown club in Stratford which met once a month and performed for nonprofits and fundraisers. Throughout the years, Chris said his parents always supported his passion. For birthdays, they gave him magic sets, unicycles, and juggling equipment.
“When I graduated high school and ran off to clown college, they weren’t surprised at all. They knew it was coming,” Chris said.
Starting in sixth grade and every year thereafter, Chris auditioned for the Ringling Brothers’ Clown College in Hartford.
“I just wanted them to know who I was,” Chris said.
His persistence paid off, a two months after graduating from Naugatuck High School, Chris went off to clown college.
It was no small feat. Ringling Brothers’ college only accepted 60 out of 5,000 applicants, and only 15 to 20 percent would go on to work for the circus.
“They said it was easier to get into Harvard than clown college,” Chris said.
Back then, Ringling Brother’s had two shows, with 26 clowns in each show, Chris explained.
Clown College was two and a half months of juggling, miming, and practicing clown skills seven days a week, all day long. Even during lunch, the students watched videos.
“It was just non-stop clowning, clowning, clowning the whole time,” Chris said.
Even with all that education, Chris said his real training began when he started touring with Ringling Brothers in 1984. He travelled with the best circus performers from all over the world.
Chris said about half the students had practiced clowning for a long time, while the others came from a theatre background or just thought it would be interesting.
“The more you can do the better, but there are some people who have absolutely no skills,” Chris said.
Each clown has his or her own unique set of skills. Chris specializes in juggling, magic, stilt walking, and unicycle.
“Besides the fact that I think I’m pretty funny, I bring all of those to my performance,” Chris said.
For 11 years, Chris lived on a train, moving from city to city every week.
“I’ve seen this country inside and out 11 times over,” Chris said.
Touring with the Ringling Brothers was hard work, but it was a dream-come-true, he said. He took advantage of traveling to every major city and national park in the states to sight-see.
“I loved it,” he said.
On tour, Chris met and fell and love with Gina, a dancer-turned-clown who would be eventually becomes his wife.
Gina grew up in Westchester, N.Y. and was trained as a dancer. She toured with Ringling for two years as a dancer and did a trampoline and aerial act before going back to school to become a clown.
“It just seemed like a lot more fun, and it was,” Gina said.
With 70 performers and another 300 support staff, Gina said the circus was a traveling city. A priest travels with show alongside teachers, concessionaires, seamstress, cobbler, animal crew, driver, and mail collector.
“It’s a pretty unique way to see the country and every Friday you’re getting paid for it.
We didn’t know how good we had it. … You end up finding your own group, but you really are one big family. … It’s kind of like being part of a huge sorority or a frat house,” Gina said.
A lot of performers for Ringling have been with the circus for generations, but after over a decade on the road, Chris decided it was time to settle down and start a family.
“Ringling was a great place to work, but I don’t think I could have lasted my 40 years and gotten my retirement plan,” Chris said.
After nine years with Ringling, Gina was also ready to leave.
“In the end I wanted a mail box and a bathtub,” Gina said.
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, circus performers didn’t have cell phones, so it was hard to communicate with friends and family back home.
“Back then if there was Facebook, I might have lasted longer,” Gina said.
Chris and Gina first moved into an apartment in New York. But, when Chris was showing his wife around his old neighborhood during a visit to Naugatuck for Chris’ brother’s house warming party, a for sale sign on a house caught their eyes. He saw an oversized three-car garage. She saw a big kitchen. They moved in two months later and 10 years later still call Naugatuck home.
Although the couple left Ringling Brothers behind, the circus remains an integral part of their lives.
Together, Chris and Gina founded Cirque du Jour, a circus and talent agency that supplies performers of all types.
“A lot of people still see us as ‘oh those clowns,’ but we’re not just those clowns. We’re so much more than that,” Gina said.
Their performers have worked at local events and fundraisers, including Naugatuck’s Duck Day and holiday kick-off. Chris said his rolodex of performers is 1,400 deep.
“If you want an elephant, call me. If you want a guy getting shot out of a canon, I’m your guy. If you want 50 mimes for a commercial shoot, call Cirque du Jour. … If you need a 7-foot-tall guy in a diaper, I would book him for you,” Chris said.
Cirque du Jour targets schools, corporations, country clubs, and malls with performances and education. Chris also teaches children circus tricks at schools and camps. Last summer, he toured with a traveling carnival. He also produces circuses as a big part of the business.
“It’s really given us a good opportunity to do a lot of fun stuff. We’re constantly running around to just keep everything going,” Chris said.
Right now, Chris said he is in the final stages of firming up a deal with Norwegian Cruise Lines to bring an interactive circus program to all their ships. Children will be able to come to a workshop and try juggling, stilts, and other circus acts. Chris said he has a recipe to bring kids together in a short amount of time and put together a performance for their parents.
“If all goes well, it will be fleet-wide,” Chris said. “It’s a huge gig for us, if it flies, which I think it’s going to.”
After years of clowning around, the Allisons aren’t slowing down any time soon.
“Once you get the sawdust in your blood, it’s hard to shake it,” Gina said. “Really it’s not a job, it’s a career, it’s a lifestyle choice”