Little stars under the Big Top

For 1st-graders' parents and grandparents, it really is the Greatest Show on Earth


Scott Witschey, 6, dressed as a clown and wearing a thick red wig, stood in the middle of the circus ring, singing loudly and tonelessly into a microphone.

"La la la la," he sang, roughly to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Another clown, 6-year-old Paul Drutch, ambled up and tapped Scott on the shoulder. "Hey, what did you get that little medal for?" Paul asked, pointing to the cardboard medallion around Scott's neck.

"For singing," said Scott.

"And what did you get the second medal for?" Paul asked, pointing to a larger medallion around Scott's neck.

"For stopping."

The audience, mostly parents of the first-graders putting on the circus, guffawed.

The first-grade circus, a tradition at Northfield Elementary School since 1983, had again transformed the cafeteria. The lights were dimmed, and a colorful parachute had been hung from the ceiling to look like a tent. Kids scampered around in tiny sequined top hats and clown costumes, or dressed as lions and elephants. A ring had been outlined in lights.

"Everyone participates, no matter what," said Fran Fico, the assistant principal, as she watched the show Thursday in the darkened cafeteria. "It's a wonderful showcase for them."

This year, that meant that 97 first-graders at Northfield needed to be helped with costumes and makeup, told when to go on stage, and ushered off the stage.

Most of the costumes - as well as the songs and routines - have been handed down from year to year.

First-grade teacher Susan Flajnik said students audition for the parts they want, then rehearse during school hours for about 2 1/2 weeks before the show. "We're very organized," said Flajnik, dressed in a clown costume, like the other four first-grade teachers. "It's a wonderful experience for the children. It builds such confidence."

The shows were started by first-grade teacher Nancy Begeny, who taught at the school from 1977 to 2000 and now works as a substitute. Back in the 1970s, Begeny said, children in every grade put on a show, with the idea being that every child in the school should get a chance to be on stage.

Working with music teacher Kevin Weidel and fellow teachers Donna Streagle and Monterey Morrel, Begeny said, she created a circus show, complete with acrobats, rope-climbers, magicians, clowns and children dressed as lions, elephants and other animals. Most of the clown skits were inspired by jokes she had seen at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, she said.

That first year, they even had a popcorn machine, Begeny said. In 1988, she and the other first-grade teachers created a bear show, using some of the same songs and costumes. Since then, Begeny has alternated with a circus show one year and a bear show the next. So you can ask any graduate of Northfield Elementary School if they were in the circus show or the bear show, and they will know right away what you mean.

These days, no other grade at Northfield puts on a show the way the first-graders do. The circus and the bear show have become rites of passage for first-graders, a chance for the youngsters to shine before an audience, first in a dress rehearsal for their schoolmates and then in a performance for their parents.

Sharon Klein, whose son, Nicholas, was playing the cymbals in the circus band, said her son had been talking about the circus for weeks. "He's been singing the songs," she said, watching as students climbed ropes while the loudspeakers blared the theme from Rocky.

"It's adorable, all the costumes and everything," Klein said. "They put a lot of work into it."

According to Begeny, the best thing about the show, which lasts about 90 minutes, is that every child gets to participate. "It's a wonderful tradition. Everyone is a star," she said.

"The children, years from now, talk about their parts," said Sherry Tobin, a speech pathologist at the school for 10 years. "They love it."

She was supervising kids dressed in clown costumes, who were playing board games between skits. "The clowns we have to keep occupied because they go back and forth," Tobin noted.

Paul, still wearing a wig, a clown costume and a face full of makeup, fiddled with LEGOs while he waited. His favorite part? "I like to hear the audience laugh," he said. "It makes me feel good."

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