When Fanny Kerwich came to Dallas in 2000, it didn’t occur to her that it might be someplace where she would settle down. Settling down anywhere sounded ridiculous to her. Fanny was a 30-year-old circus acrobat. She was French and a Gypsy. And Dallas was just another city in a two-year tour.
Fanny was touring with Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, a one-ring boutique circus presented in a more intimate European style than the big circuses that normally tour the United States. Kaleidoscape took place inside a tent, with the audience seated on red velvet sofas only a few feet from the performers. Fanny did a clown act, playing a frumpy cleaning woman who’d wander in and out of the show at seemingly inopportune moments. In the end, she’d transform, through a combination of magic, applause, and the audience’s love, into a beautiful, graceful acrobat. Corny as it sounded, the audience always ate it up.
After each night’s two-and-a-half-hour show, Fanny and her single colleagues usually went out to find a Deep Ellum nightclub where they could kick back for a few hours. When she went out by herself, Fanny turned heads. She had long, blond hair; a striking, almost leonine face; and a beyond-buff athletic figure. But when she was out with her friends—acrobats, jugglers, and a trio of Moroccan strongmen called the Golden Statues—wherever the bar or the city, people would swarm on them, wanting to talk, dance, and have a drink.
At the end of the night, back at the hotel, Fanny and her friends would perform a little ritual before going off to bed. One of them would call out, “Cards!” And they’d hand in all the business cards they’d gotten from people that night. They would go through the cards and, one by one, try to remember the guy who’d given it to them. Then they’d toss it in the trash and he’d be forgotten. Besides putting an end to the night with an easy laugh, it was also a way of reinforcing who they were and acknowledging the wall that separates circus people from outsiders.
For Fanny, all that changed one night at a place called Club Seven. Fanny didn’t like it. The music was too loud, and the guys there were exactly the kind she didn’t care for: slick, pretty, hip, and, from the way a lot of them acted, coked out.
But then a guy came up and started talking to her, and right off Fanny knew he was different. His name was Mark Doyle, and with his tall, thin, rugged looks and straight talk, he seemed to Fanny like he must be a cowboy. When Mark found out Fanny was with the circus, he wanted to hear about her life and the different places she’d been. The Kerwiches went back eight generations as circus performers, which is as far back as anyone went in the business. They were there when the first modern circus was established in London in the late 18th century. Fanny was proud of her heritage, but she was modest about it, and Mark liked her accent and the way she mangled English idioms.
Fanny got Mark to talk about his life in Dallas. To her surprise, she learned he was not a cowboy but a lawyer. Their conversation sailed on for more than an hour. And then, suddenly, it was time to go.
That night back at the hotel, Fanny and her friends performed the card ritual again. But when they got to Mark’s card, Fanny put up her hand and said, “Don’t throw that one away. I’m keeping it.” Immediately everybody’s eyes went up. “Fanny,” they said, “this isn’t like you.” It wasn’t. Up till then, Fanny had almost exclusively dated clowns.
The next day, Fanny stared at Mark’s card but didn’t call. She knew their cultures were too different. She went back to work and did her best to put him out of her mind.
But that evening, when the show was over and Fanny was busily autographing programs, she looked up, and there stood Mark, smiling at her. “So how’d you like it?” she asked. Mark grinned sheepishly and confessed he hadn’t actually seen the show. It had been sold out, and he’d spent the whole two and a half hours standing outside.
That night, they went out to dinner. To their immense relief, the conversation sparked up just as easily as before. The next night, Mark did get into the show, and he loved the acrobats and the aerialists and the Golden Statues so much that he could have been a child again. But most of all he loved watching Fanny do her goofy clown cleaning woman act. And when the time came for her magical transformation, he clapped along with everyone else until the beautiful acrobat emerged. It almost shocked Mark that this star could be the very same down-to-earth woman he’d been talking to.
Not long after, Kaleidoscape moved to Chicago, and Mark started flying there to be with Fanny. “By then, I knew I was hooked,” Fanny says. “My friends would say, ‘Okay, we’re going out. You want to come?’ I’d just say, ‘Thanks, but I’m going to stay home and call Mark.’ They’d roll their eyes and head off without me.”
By the time Kaleidoscape moved to Cleveland, Mark had asked Fanny to marry him. Marriage outside the circus was out of the question. “Anytime someone from the circus marries an outsider,” an old saying goes, “there’s sure to be a suicide.”
The circus world is bound by a timeless ethos of hard work, family, and passion for its art. Though circus people never stay anywhere for very long, they regard their existence as anything but rootless, for it’s the extension of an ancient world that has changed little through the centuries. You never left it because you always had a place. If you couldn’t be an acrobat, you were a juggler. If you couldn’t be a juggler, you were a clown. If you couldn’t be a clown, you played an instrument, or set up the tents, or took care of animals, or sold tickets. It was your world forever. That’s how you were raised, and that’s how you’d raise your kids.
And now here Fanny was, falling in love with a lawyer from Dallas, a sédentaire whose parents worked in offices and went to church, grew tomatoes in their gardens, and probably couldn’t juggle two balls between them to save their lives.
Tearfully, she tried explaining all this to Mark. He told her that none of it mattered. He loved her and would do anything to be with her. If she performed in the streets, he’d pass around a hat. She knew Mark meant it.
Fanny knew of only one instance in which someone from the circus had married an outsider and it had worked. Her mother had been 16 when she ran away from home after falling in love with Fanny’s father, Albert Kerwich. But by the time the two married, Fanny’s mother had transformed herself into a trick shot, knife thrower, and bullwhip artist. If she’d become circus, Fanny thought, perhaps so could Mark.
Fanny took Mark to Paris to meet her family and friends. If he was going to become circus, he’d have to pass muster with them. She took him backstage to the Moulin Rouge and the Lido, and to her relief everyone there liked him just fine. Then Fanny took Mark to meet her parents. They lived outside Paris in a house trailer with monkeys.
“Fanny,” Albert Kerwich told his daughter, “with Mark you’ll always have the freedom to do what you love.”
Fanny’s cousins, however, wanted to test Mark’s worthiness. They took him to their lion cage, opened the doors, and said, “Get in!” She didn’t think he would, but Mark got in.
They were married in August 2002 at the old Methodist Church on Ross Avenue. Fanny’s parents and a handful of relatives flew in from Paris. It was a raucous event, with local jugglers and musicians performing at the reception. Fanny’s father, who was in his 80s, tore up the dance floor with just about every girl in attendance.
Now, seven years later, as she sits with Mark and their two children in the backyard of their North Dallas home, Fanny recalls how she first brought circus to Dallas. Her once-a-week performances at a Lower Greenville cabaret soon led to corporate gigs and conventions. But Fanny’s real break came with Barbette, a Kitchen Dog Theater play about a real-life Texas-born aerialist and transvestite who’d become the toast of 1930s Paris. Fanny met the playwright, SMU theater professor Bill Lengfelder, and he hired her to teach acrobatics to his actors.
“I’m the kind of person who hates almost everybody,” Lengfelder says. “But the first moment I met Fanny, I knew she was family. Fanny has the kind of understanding of life that comes from staring down 30 feet over an audience. She lives every moment as if her life depends on it. She imparts this to my students.”
Fanny began teaching circus arts. First to children at the Dallas International School, and then to students of all ages at the Expressionists, her own studio. Her students, ranging from toddlers to women in their 50s, spread out over gyms and studios in the Dallas area, now number in the dozens. This winter she staged the third show of her Lone Star Circus, and every step of the way Mark is with her. He is its president. And his parents, the real sédentaires, help out any way they can, selling tickets and programs, even helping serve the concessions.
Fanny’s biggest fear was that by marrying Mark and settling in Dallas, she would break the bond that has kept the Kerwich clan close for generations. They have two children now, and both of them, Fanny is happy to report, have taken to circus and acrobatics like fish to water. Their 4-year-old daughter, Gigi, started performing while still in a diaper, and their 2-year-old son, Garrett, is learning to spin plates. As for that old saying about marrying outside the circus, Fanny hasn’t once thought about suicide.
Brendan McNally is the author of Germania (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Write to [email protected].