As television channeled its way into the public brain in the early 1950s, there were dire predictions from around the world about the future of off-screen entertainment. Australian circus owner Mervyn King felt the financial panic of the times and sold off his life's blood in 1953: Silver's Circus. King himself was a throwaway kid, an orphan not supposed to be born and later given away to St. Leon's Circus at the tender age of 6. The rough world under the big tent and the dusty roads of the Aussie outback were all King knew, and his genuine skills as a circus proprietor, lion tamer, horseman, acrobat and all-around showman became legendary in those parts.
Memories are all that remain of the original Silver's Circus, and it's the vivid recollections of travels with his dad's circus in the late 1940s that Sonny King, the eldest of Merv's two boys (from two different wives), lovingly crafted into a colorful series of 13 detailed dioramas that debuted last year at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum.
Thanks to the artist's personal inquiry to the Mennello, The Original Silver's Circus & Zoo: Works by Sonny King currently sits tucked away to the left of the reception area at the museum; the black boxes are lined up in no particular order on counter space, kind of like school projects. Pull up a stool, peep inside at the lighted scenarios and sit a spell till your mouth forms an "O" expression similar to the ones worn by King's exquisitely detailed customers in the stands.
These simple folk are precisely appointed, down to polka-dot fashions and five-o'clock shadows, each with a personality and story waiting to be told. The reconstructed performance acts include equestrian feats, lion-taming thrills and trapeze triumphs. My favorite, and apparently Sonny King's as well, is the men's dressing tent, where Merv fondly stands watching his family of performers in various stages of costume dress, the crew relaxed but readying for the call to duty.
Now in his late 60s and living in Beverly Hills, Sonny King retired from a career in television graphics (he even won an Emmy) and started crafting his homage to his father after Merv died in 2003. How did the artist infuse the wood and clay — 400 figures of animal and people and countless set pieces — with such living spirit?
"Sonny King grew up in the circus — there is an authenticity to the work; details, stories within stories, lighting," says Frank Holt, Mennello's executive director. "Even though small, the pieces are very theatrical."
For example, there's a scene that shows a young woman walking out of a dark tent, which we must look deep inside to see the stage buried within. The staging represents the day that Sonny's mother, also from a famous circus family, walked away from the life with Sonny, in a search for something better for her son. But Merv frequently sprang him from boarding school, especially in the summers, so they could share the wild circus life together.
Before he died at age 95, the elder King had realized that the sale of Silver's Circus was regrettably premature, but rest assured, Merv, that Sonny has made sure that all is not firstname.lastname@example.org
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