Karel Berousek: “I rule with an iron fist”

The Berousek Circus is already the seventh generation of a huge family, celebrated for its outstanding artistic performances and legendary bear taming. From jugglers who entertained royalty in castles they have become professionals in every respect. The Nestor of the family firm says that the circus game is a tough business whose running requires a firm hand.How many members does your circus have?
We have 18 artists and 12 laborers in all. This includes 12 members of our family.

Is it hard to run a circus, and a family firm to boot?
To tell you the truth, it’s just about impossible. We work from dawn to dusk, and it all has to tick like a Swiss watch. If someone drops the ball you can see it immediately. Unlike most people, we don’t enjoy eight hour days or weekends or vacations. I’d compare it to sports – we try to reach the very best performances, we put in countless hours in the ring, training and working on ourselves, all in our efforts to attract audiences. It’s not simple. The Ministry of Culture has no interest in us, so it doesn’t give us any financial support. Towns rob us whenever they can – they want lots of money from ticket sales and high rents. I try to maintain a traditional Czech family circus, but it gets my goat that we aren’t better off financially, not to mention the lack of prestige circus people suffer from in society.

Despite all the obstacles you mentioned, you’ve held the family firm together. How have you done it?
There’s no escaping it. If you have a firm regimen, you can keep it together. The children know that until they get married they have to do as I say. I rule with an iron fist.

Is it hard to train an outstanding artist?
It sure is, and that’s why it’s good to have a family firm. I’ve taken care of the kids since they were little. Their drill was very strict, although these days it’s nothing like it used to be when our ancestors were alive. The problem lies elsewhere; it’s not enough for us to have outstanding artists. We always have to come up with something new, to surprise people. The program has to be dynamic. We were recently the first circus in the world to present trained ducks and a talking horse. Every season the audiences want new experiences, and we have to provide them.

Each of you does a bit of everything. On her break an artist sells souvenirs, and clowns check tickets. Is that an economic arrangement?
Yes, we can’t afford to employ fifty people, as we did under the former regime, when circuses were state enterprises. It’s all about money. For example, in this country the most expensive ticket costs 170 crowns, while in Germany it’s 50 euros. That’s a huge difference. If we want to buy a big-top it takes us four years to pay for it, while German circuses make enough in a few days. All of us do everything, because otherwise we wouldn’t survive.

What do you do in the winter, when the circus isn’t performing?
We spend winters on an estate near Mělník, where we repair our equipment. This year my sons will again go for engagements in a Swiss circus, and we’ll use the money they earn to buy a horse, or something else. I’ll be at the estate with my wife, where we’ll rehearse new numbers. The animals rest up – they have lots of free range, and a pond – paradise on Earth.

But some people object that animals are mistreated in circuses. How do you feel about that?
Yes, but who says that? Mainly members of the Green Party, which makes money on it. They get state subsidies for their shelters, and then the poor dogs and cats suffer there. We love our animals, and they adore us. I think that the people who tear down our ads and proclaim that our performances have been cancelled are disturbed; they should focus on the monstrous transport of animals in small spaces and other forms of abuse.

What kind of boss are you?
When it clicks I’m in a good mood, but when it doesn’t I can be a bitch. We cannot afford mistakes. Keeping everything going is nerve-wracking, it’s given me diabetes. Our biggest problem is finding good people for our technical staff. Quality guys mostly go ply their trades in companies where it’s easy to find work. We have to take anyone; sometimes they’re former criminals. Brawls, knives, drink, that’s all on our daily agenda. How do I deal with it? First I impose fines. If there’s no improvement either the offender goes away of his own accord, or else he suffers here. The only thing that works with them is a firm method using ultimatums and a loud voice.

Career highlights
1970 his legendary bears were featured in the successful Czech film, “Six Bears with Cibulka”.
1980 the Berouseks were invited to Disneyland in Orlando, Florida, to display their art in a huge entertainment program in which 400 performers from all around the world were featured
1982 the Berousek Circus was honored by the Japanese entertainment industry for animal taming
2000 Berousek presents the “talking horse”
2003 allegedly the first circus in the world to present trained ducks

Have you ever felt like washing your hands of this work?
Twice a month. Frankly, if I didn’t have the animals I’d be out of here in a minute. But I’ve had them since they were little, I’m used to them and they’re used to me. I chose their vocation for them, and it wouldn’t be fair not to see them through.Your little community is together 24 hours a day. You and your wife live in a trailer of just a few square meters. Do you get cabin fever?
Quite often. Sometimes my wife can’t stand me, other times I can’t stand her. People with regular jobs have the advantage of not seeing each other all day. It’s worse for us. When we’ve had too much I get up and go out for a few hours and she cools off. And the children? They don’t have the right to get into spats and refuse to talk to each other. They get a clout on the head and that’s the end of their cabin fever!

What is your ordinary work day like?
We get up around eight. We tend to the animals until eleven. Then I send my son to check on our advertising leaflets in town, because overnight people destroy them. We clean the circus, we check to see if we have enough feed, and if not we have to go as far as three hundred kilometers from Prague for it, because it’s terribly expensive here. After lunch we plan our show. That’s when I start to get nervous. Besides performing with the bears, I check on the laborers, I watch over the other performers, and I watch people’s reactions.

What is most stressful for you?
I worry about where our circus is going, what the future will hold for us. It bothers me that people say we’re comedians, and they mean it as an insult. But our artists are highly skilled, and they enjoy a great reputation in the west. Children love us, but adults look down on us.

Will your family tradition continue even after you retire?
I hope so. Our consolation is that Europe is opening up. As soon as we can, we’ll get out of Bohemia and live like real Europeans. Although we’re aware that the competition in the west is fierce, we aren’t afraid of that, because the Berousek name really means something in Europe and America.






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