Michael Christensen

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Clown, Juggler, Circus Director

By Dominique Jando

Michael Christensen was born in Walla-Walla, Washington, on January 15, 1947. His childhood was difficult. He suffered an unhappy, dysfunctional family life, though the troubles at home were mercifully offset by generally pleasant experiences at school and elsewhere. In his late teens, Michael enrolled in the University of Washington's first Professional Actor Training Program. Upon graduation, in the late sixties, he joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a political street-theater company that used circus techniques to create visual metaphors. As a member of the Mime Troupe, Michael found himself at the heart of the counterculture movement then blossoming all over the United States, but especially in "the City by the Bay."

Among the Troupe's performers were his future juggling and clowning partner, Paul Binder, and Larry Pisoni, who taught Michael to juggle. (Pisoni would later create the groundbreaking Pickle Family Circus in 1974.) Larry and Michael put together a juggling duet, in which they exchanged humorous quips while passing clubs. Eager to see the world, they decided to go to England and perform their act on street corners to finance a European "grand tour." As soon as Michael arrived in London, however, he received word that Larry couldn't join him there. Michael had often passed clubs with Paul Binder as part of the Mime Troupe, so he asked Paul if he would come in Pisoni's place. Paul accepted.

Hence, Michael and Paul embarked on a juggling tour of Europe, which went as far as Istanbul and ended in Paris. While performing their now well-polished comedy-juggling routine in the streets of Paris's Latin Quarter, they were spotted by an usher of the legendary revue theater, the Casino de Paris, who arranged for their being auditioned by its director, the renowned French choreographer, Roland Petit. To their amazement, Michael and Paul found themselves featured in Petit's revue, Zizi, je t'aime!. They subsequently appeared on a French TV show, where they were seen by Annie Fratellini, who offered them a spot in her newly created Nouveau Cirque de Paris.

They found themselves, as Michael put it, "at home" in the single ring of this elegant, intimate French circus. Paul Binder returned home with a single goal: to create in New York a circus modeled on what they had seen in Paris. Michael joined him in this new venture, and on July 18, 1977, the Big Apple Circus was born.

Michael and Paul performed their juggling act in every edition of the Big Apple Circus until 1983—and once more in 1985, in a performance of the Big Apple Circus with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra for a PBS TV special, The Pops Join the Circus. They did their juggling act for the last time on January 27, 1998 in Paris as a tribute to Annie Fratellini, at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain.

In their original juggling act, Michael played the straight man, Paul the comic—or more accurately, the clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.. Then Michael tried his hand at clowning, and, being the trained actor he was, found his niche. In 1982, he developed the character of Mr. Stubbs, a "hobo" in the tradition of Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling, but with a European touch: Like most European clowns, Mr. Stubbs used verbal comedy. Along with Barry Lubin and Jeff Gordon, Michael was part of a very successful trio of clowns who graced the Big Apple Circus ring until 1986.

Michael retired from performing in 1988. He had become Director of Clowning at the Big Apple Circus in 1981 and would become its Creative Director in 1995. In 1986, he created the Big Apple Circus Clown Care®, an organization within the Big Apple Circus, which sends clowns and visual performers to residencies in top pediatric hospitals around the United States.

Michael Christensen is a recipient of the Raoul Waldenberg Humanitarian Award, the Red Skelton Community Service Award, and Parenting Magazine's Parenting Achievement Award. He was inducted into the Ambassador David M. Walters International Pediatric Hall of Fame and was designated a New York Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. He has also received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Washington College of Arts and Sciences.

As an actor, Michael has appeared in the films Popeye, Heaven's Gate, and Annie. He has also appeared in two episodes of the CBS TV series Chicago Hope.

Michael and his wife, Karyn, have two children, Ivy and Kyla.

See also