For many of us, childhood memories include a trip to the circus. For a very select few, their childhood memories took place in the center ring under the spotlight.
Barbara VanVoorden and Timothy Tegge, are two such people. For nearly 50 years Tegge’s life has been devoted to the circus as a performer, collector and historian. His wife, VanVoorden, is a semi-retired foot juggler and English instructor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Tegge works as a ringmaster, performance director, illusionist and clown. He’s also owner and curator of the Tegge Circus Archives, a vast collection of circus memorabilia. Parts of that collection can be found in the exhibit, “The Magic Speed of Dreams: Life in the American Circus 1900-1956” at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL through Aug. 7.
Tegge has a home in Baraboo, Wis. and an apartment in St. Louis, which he shares with VanVoorden, an associate teaching professor of English at UMSL. Both are third generation circus performers, and to hear Tegge tell it, sawdust runs through their veins.
“When I was 3 years old my father, who had his own circus at the time, dressed me as a clown and had me follow him on my tricycle in a circus parade,” Tegge said. “I was hooked. By the time I was 5, I could put on my own makeup.”
Today he travels from coast to coast several months a year with some of the nation’s largest circus companies. During the rest of the year, he joins VanVoorden on the road. She resumed performing in 2005 after walking away in the 1980s from the only life she ever really knew.
“My mother was a famous foot juggler in her native Holland and was hired by Ringling Brothers Circus in 1950,” VanVoorden said. “She was one of the best of her generation.” Apolonia VanVoorden stayed in the U.S. with the Ringling circus long enough to make a brief appearance in the 1952 blockbuster, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” She returned to the U.S. in 1959 and gave birth to her daughter that same year.
“Circus is very much a family tradition,” said Van Voorden, whose grandparents ran a circus in Holland. “You practice your skill beginning in childhood and you get as good as you can be. It was a secure, complete world. Very few outsiders made it into that world and few got out.”
VanVoorden started traveling with her mother in the circus when she was 10 years old. She and her mother would perform side by side, juggling balls, tubes, barrels, even tables. Schoolwork took place on the road through a correspondence school. She has fond memories of reading in the back of her parents’ truck as they traveled.
“I never set foot in a normal high school,” Van Voorden said. “This was long before home-schooling. I took all my classes through the American School of Correspondence. The curriculum was very rigorous and I learned discipline and time management.”
It wasn’t until she had a child of her own that she thought about leaving the circus. It was 1980 and the circus world she knew was changing. The small shows of her childhood were dying off. She wanted more for her son and knew in order to get ahead she needed to go to college.
“Leaving the circus to go to college is like running away to join the circus on the outside,” she said. “It’s just not understood.” VanVoorden took classes at then Belleville Area College, and did very well and in the process learned about financial aid. She applied to Washington University in St. Louis, calling it a “shot in the dark. I never thought I would get in.” She did, receiving scholarships, and fellowships earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Washington University.
“I had to overcome a lot of obstacles,” she said. “I was 25, had a young child and commuted every day from my mother’s trailer in Illinois. That’s why I feel I have a lot in common with UMSL’s non-traditional students.”
When her son was 7 and 8 years old, she would perform occasionally in a circus, but never returned to circus life until 2005 when she got a call from Tegge.
The two young performers had met in 1980 when she was hired by his father’s circus. They “clicked” according to Tegge. But he was married, she was pregnant and a romance was out of the question. Their paths crossed over the years, but one or the other was not available.
“Then Tim called me in 2005 from Topeka and invited me to the circus,” said Van Voorden with a smile. “He was finally not married. We’ve been together ever since.”
The soft-spoken, prim professor’s other life takes place on weekends, breaks and summer vacations from UMSL. She and Tegge perform in small circuses and in a production called “Mystification” where she and her husband perform feats of classic magic, legendary vaudeville and modern-day performance. Says their website: “It is Ed Sullivan, David Bowie, P.T. Barnum, and Criss Angel, all rolled into one.”
The Mercantile Library’s exhibition, “The Magic Speed of Dreams: Life in the American Circus 1900-1956,” features original lithographs, photographs, props, costumes and a colorful, hand-carved model of a circus train vintage 1940s. Much of Tegge’s collection has been handed down to him by the performers he called his family during what he calls a “lifelong devotion to the circus.”
The exhibition is free and open to the public during regular library hours. Group tours are offered at 11 a.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays or by appointment. Tegge will also lecture on circus history at 2 p.m. March 11 at the Mercantile Library.