Circus Memories Under The "Small Top"

The art of Sonny King
It is the oldest of youthful fantasies: Running away to a life in the circus, playing among the elephants and the acrobats.

More than half a century ago, young Sonny King did just that in the Australian outback. Sonny shared some of those big-top memories with CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent Jerry Bowen.

In the 1940s and '50s Sonny's father, Mervyn King, was "Mr. Circus" in Australia. He was the owner and one of the stars of Silvers' Circus: Ringmaster, horse trainer, lion tamer and more. It wasn't until Sonny was a teenager that he understood his father's life was unusual.

Sonny remembered being asked, "'You mean your father is a lion tamer?'" And he would answer, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. So ... so what?"

Mervyn King was a true son of the circus, literally raised under the Australian big top, and abandoned by his un-wed parents and given away to a small traveling circus when he was just six years old.

As Mervyn King grew, so did his story. A story his son, an artist, believed was worth telling.

It is a story told in a baker's dozen of detailed dioramas that Sonny created from scratch from his childhood memories and is now on exhibition at the Craft and Fold Art Museum in Los Angeles.

There, in handcrafted miniature, is his father in the lion's cage. Just as he looked in the old black-and-white films that captured his act.

Also, there is the jaw-dropping Johnny Zelinsky, holding up a trapeze artist with just his teeth ... an act he kept doing into his eighties!

And there were the amazing Shipway twins, Olympic-class athletes who ruled the horizontal bars ... most of the time.

"And every now and again they'd miss the trick and they'd fly off into the audience and knock about five people out of their seats," Sonny laughed as he told Bowen, "but that was always fun."

And this poignant scene: Peeking through the back of the big top, a juggler warming up to go on ... a clown relaxing ... townsfolk ogling these exciting visitors ... and the woman in the polka dot dress, walking away.

Looking at that diorama, Sonny described the scene: "Well, this one here represents my mother leaving the circus. She left the circus when she was 20 and she took me with her."

His mother Phyllis Perry was from a famous Australian circus family - a star in her own right - and tired of it all.

"She figured that there was a better life somewhere. And my father didn't know anything else, so he stayed with the circus. That's all he knew."

But starting when Sonny was ten years old, his father pulled him out of boarding school for months at a time, to travel the rough and tumble Australian outback with the circus. It was a little boy's fantasy come true.

"It was a fantasy," Sonny remembered, "It was great. I had my own horse. I'm sure I was very spoiled. I was the boss' son, you know."

When we think of the circus today, we think of "The Greatest Show on Earth" playing to big crowds in big arenas in big cities like Los Angeles. But that is not the circus life that Sonny King remembers.

One diorama depicts rural Waga Waga, a small town typical of the stops made by Silvers' Circus.

"This is the advance man," Sonny said, pointing out one of the characters. "He would go ahead of the show by two weeks. And he would put up what they called 'the bills,' the posters, advertising the circus coming to town."

There was no bigger show, especially in the Australian outback. After the big tent went up, the townspeople would line up and pour in.

As Sonny began to create his father's story, he started with the audience.

"I'll build the audience because it would be disrespectful not to have a full house," Sonny said, chuckling.

King sculpted nearly 400 characters from clay, inspired by those small town circusgoers he saw years ago. Each diorama took up to three months to create.

King's favorite diorama? A place that provoked vivid memories, the men's dressing tent. Where performers would wind down, gear up and let loose. In miniature, his father looks on.

"To go in there was a riot, because they'd be cracking jokes and they'd be playing practical jokes on each other," Sonny laughed at the memory. "You didn't wanna see a lot of this stuff, but it was funny."

What started as a small tribute to his father has become a popular exhibition, says museum director Maryna Hrushetska. "The essence of folk art is storytelling. And you can't look at a diorama and not wonder, 'Who are these people? Who's in the audience? Who are the performers?' You almost get drawn into and hear the excitement and smell what was going on in the circus."

Sonny King discovered he was not meant for the circus life. Instead he found his way to America, as a part-time painter and full-time graphic artist for film and television.

And at age 67, he's found a second career in his dioramas.

His father Mervyn died in 2003 at the age of 95.

Generations of Australians remember Mervyn King. And thanks to his son who never forgot, now others can catch his act ... one scene at a time ... under the "small top" in Los Angeles.