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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Paul Binder, Founder of The Big Apple Circus and Esteemed Living Landmark Our Coverage Sponsored by Stribling and Associates

Paul Binder

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Paul Binder is the founder of the Big Apple Circus. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he graduated from Dartmouth College and earned an M.B.A. at Columbia University. Binder worked at WGBH-TV in Boston (stage-managing for Julia Child’s The French Chef) and as a talent coordinator for Merv Griffin, before heading West and learning juggling with the San Francisco Mime Troupe—where Binder met Michael Christensen.

Together, Binder and Christensen traveled through Europe and earned their living by juggling on street corners. Their act landed them on the legendary stage of the Casino de Paris, on French television and, eventually, in the ring of Annie Fratellini’s Nouveau Cirque de Paris.

Binder returned to New York with a dream—to create an American circus with the same dedication to theatrical excellence and artistic intimacy that he and Christensen had experienced in Europe. He found the people who would share his dream and implement his vision and, in 1977, the Big Apple Circus was born.

Founder, Founding Artistic Director of the Big Apple Circus, and a gifted performer, Paul Binder was recently honored by ABC-TV World News with Charles Gibson as "Person of the Week". In July of 2009 Mr. Binder "stepped out of the ring" but continues to work with the Big Apple Circus as a senior advisor. He is currently in demand as a guest speaker, having spoken and led seminars at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Virginia and Barnard College.

Paul has received Honorary Doctorate Degrees in Fine Arts from his alma mater, Dartmouth, Pratt Institute, and Rhode Island College, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Long Island University. In 2001 he was given the honor of "NYC Living Landmark," by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. He is the proud father of Katherine, Max, Adam and Anais. We are absolutely thrilled to present Paul Binder as our latest Mover and Shaker and feel quite lucky we got to sit next to him at the last Landmarks Conservancy Gala and have been reviewing his brainchild, The Big Apple Circus, for ages-see our review of the 35th Anniversary currently running.
Peachy Deegan interviewed Paul Binder for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: We love The Big Apple Circus and we write about it every time you are in town. What inspired you to create it?
Paul Binder: 
I had learned to juggle as a comedy actor in the San Francisco Mime Troupe. With that as a passport, Michael Christensen and I juggled across Europe on the streets from London to Istanbul. We were asked to be in the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, which was the inspiration for Big Apple Circus

What should most people know about being a Ringmaster that most would not know?
In the European circus, the ringmaster is much more than a ceremonial figure. He/she is more like an orchestra conductor, rehearsing with the cast and leading them through the performance.

How has running a circus changed throughout the years?
The artists have gotten more precise and demanding. I see that as a good thing.

How do you find the newest, coolest performers to showcase season after season?
There are Festivals in Paris, Monte Carlo and other venues where the best acts come to compete for prizes. And, because of the reputation of the Big Apple Circus as being a wonderful place to perform, we receive DVD’s from all over the world. 

We really miss Bello the Clown. Does he have plans to return?
At this moment, he has no plans to return

We love the New York Landmarks Conservancy-how did you find out you were going to be named a Landmark, what was your favorite part about the night you were honored, what did you say that night in your speech and how has it affected your life?
Peg Breen sent Michael Christensen and me a letter, asking if we would accept the award. Wow! What a list of New York City lovers we were asked to join. We actually said very little but did a comedy juggling act that we prepared for the occasion and lip-synched and stage stepped “Respect,” in a trio with Grandma the clown.

What was it like to work with Julia Child and what should we know about her that is not common knowledge?
Julia was a true leader and had enormous respect for everyone involved in making the show happen. I was 21 and her support and encouragement was instrumental in making me feel that I could follow my passion. I’m not sure that anyone realizes that she did all the prep work for every course…and that we got to eat the food.

Have any of your children pursued the circus?
My daughter Katherine is the General Manager of Circus Flora in St. Louis.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
Julia Child and our founding chairman, Alan Slifka. and several teachers at Dartmouth.

What are you proudest of and why?

Pride goeth before the fall…. In any case choosing among different aspects of what we’ve done, would be like saying who was your favorite grandchild.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?

Finish my new book, Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion… and other uncommon tales from the founder of the Big Apple Circus.

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?

I have honorary doctorates (Fine Arts and Humane Letters) from my Alma Mater, Dartmouth, Long Island University, Pratt Institute and Rhode Island College. I’m an honorary member of the Lotos Club and was honored as “Person of the Week” on ABC World News. It is always a humbling experience.

What one word best describes you and why?
NAIVE, because no matter how much I learn, there always seems to be something new and more to learn. 

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?

Lincoln Center

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
Stoopher and Boots on Amsterdam Avenue, all hand-made items

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why?
Yo Yo Ma, so I could hear him play every day. By the way, he’s been a fan of the Big Apple Circus.

What is your favorite drink?
Plain old bubbly water

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party?
I get a blob of yellow mustard on my pants and had to stand in front of the other guests and speak

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?

For years it was O’Neal’s across from Lincoln Center, but it’s gone now. That allowed me to discover La Mirabelle…good old fashioned provincial French food. Also on the other end of the French spectrum, creative and very special, is Bouloud. Daniel Bouloud is a “Living Landmark.”

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature? 

My favorite Manhattan character is Damon Runyon’s Nathan Detroit.

Who would you like to be for a day and why?
Nathan Lane, so I could sing and clown in a Broadway show.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?

A spot in Washington Square Park, because we juggled there and were discovered by the Producer of Sesame Street there, and had a nine year run on the show. How many people can say they worked with Oscar the Grouch?

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
Playing softball in Central Park in the Broadway League.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Go to Broadway shows on Broadway and in the “Broadway” neighborhood

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why?
James Joyce. Ullyses is endlessly fascinating.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
Any visit to MOMA

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
The Big Apple Circus has 5 vital community programs. Service to the community has been a part of our mission from day one. Check out our website:

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
Cirque du Soleil, when it visits, is both.

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
I like the Best of 2012-it is like an advent calendar!

Have you tried The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
I have not tried it because I haven’t been to any of its home watering holes. I’ll bet it’s tasty. Do you recommend it? Hmmm…

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?

After 34 years of the Big Apple Circus, I remain a hopeless romantic

How do you want to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?
I can be contacted via my website: Just don’t ask for free tickets!!!

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