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Monte-Carlo Circus Festival
...and a unique Circus Museum

Don't you some times wish you could simply step into a bright, happy world full of music and fantasy and escape for a while? I wanted to get to the fascinating world of colourful costumes, sensations, animals and masquerade. So - step right up folks - the show can being....


Welcome to the world-famous circus festival which reaches its climax each year in the first week of February - when 1001 nights are conjured up with dizzying skill. Perhaps these pictures will make you want to come and take part in the circus yourself, because, whatever the circus is and whatever country it comes from, one that performs here in Monte Carlo and receives the approval of Prince Rainier of Monaco has really made it. Such a circus can then count itself among the very best in the world.

We are here for the 20th anniversary. What a fantastic show! The smell of sawdust, the clouds of confetti, sticky candy floss, freshly roasted popcorn and the antics of the clowns. Wide-eyed, like children, we make our way past the brightly coloured circus caravans and are whipped away for a couple of hours into the unique, incomparable world of delight which you really only experience at a circus. A glance behind the scenes is always worthwhile, because there is always something going on backstage: women dyeing their hair in their net stockings or a corset, men in red uniforms - and naturally the popular artistes who only live to make their audience happy.

During our visit, the alluring Spaniard, Denise, was the top spot with her erotic hula-hoop dance to techno music. Prince Rainier also awarded her a prize for her performance. Childhood days are suddenly not as far away as one thought! I am hopeless nostalgic and enjoy a carusel-ride on horseback.

People, animals, sensations - a craze which has caught on, as can be seen for example with the extremely successful Canadian “Cirque du Soleil” or the circus restaurant founded in Germany “Pomp, Duck and Circumstances”, both of which have, in the mean tim e, become cult institutions and are continually on world tour. The annual circus competition in Monaco, however, always exceeds all expectations. The best artistes in the world perform here to a demanding audience.

The most important man in the background is Dr. Alain Frère - a friend of Prince Rainier and co-founder of the circus.

Dear Dr. Frére, everybody here talks about you. You are actually the soul of the festival. Could you tell me a little about it....

Dr. Frère:
The circus festival was started by Prince Rainier in 1974 - he was a circus fan and he organised the whole event to coincide with his 25th anniversary as sovereign. He loved the circus and wanted to promote it in his own way. I'm here to be at the Prince's side and help him.

That is exactly 22 years ago, but due to the Gulf War and the death of Princess Grace, the festival was not held for two years, so this year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the festival and, as always, it's a great event!


Dr. Alain Frère is also an internationally known collector of circus memorabilia. Begun during Dr. Frère’s years as a physician serving many traveling circus companies in Europe, the collection now includes thousands of items and has also become a depository for other, smaller collections of circus materials. Displays include dozens of performers’ costumes and props, photographs, and dedicatory and commemorative plates and other materials. Although primarily of European origin, the collections now also feature many priceless items from American circus companies. Selected items from Dr. Frère’s collections have comprised traveling exhibitions in museums throughout Europe and North America. The collections also include nearly one thousand books on circus performances and circus history--some of them privately printed and exceedingly rare—as well as hundreds of audio and video recordings of circus performances some of which are unique. Most of the exhibited objects were offered to Dr. Frère by artists of circus families.

You own a wonderful private circus museum yourself. Where did you develop your passion for such things?

Dr. Frère:
I have always been fascinated by the circus world - even as a four-year old I ran to see every circus which came through our village. Later, too, after I had qualified as a doctor and became the mayor of Tourette -Levens, I continued with my hobby and collected everything to do with it: circus costumes from all over the world, documents, pictures and even plates - in other words everything that had to do with the French or even the European circus.
My circus museum covers 160 square metres on the ground floor of my villa and all of the original mementoes are on display there.

Where did you find all these treasures?

Dr. Frère:
I bought quite a few of course, such as the plates, the posters and the documents. Yet the most precious exhibits are the costumes that were worn. These were given to me by well-known circus families. I have built up a close friendship with many of the artistes and therefore receive a lot of things from the circus world for free. A few days ago, the Knies brought me 3 original costumes for my museum. The famous Knie circus family from Rapperswil in Switzerland have been known for their outstanding skill in horse dressage for many years.

One often hears that the circus has no money and no future - what would you say to that?

Dr. Frère:
No, on the contrary, an increasing number of young people are fascinated by the circus. In France alone there are 100 circus schools, not only to train professional acrobats, but also to give young talent a chance. I think that this is a great idea. Naturally, each circus needs to adapt itself to the taste of the tim e - today, the public needs to sit on comfortable chairs, the circus tent has to be well-lit - you have to encourage people to go the circus.

The overall concept must be right of course. You just can't throw any old acts together. The programme must have a story - and there must be something new. A mixture of old and new, past and present is needed.

You can no doubt tell me something about the origins of the circus....

Dr. Frère:
Of course, it's a simple story. It began in 1760 with an Englishman called Ashley, at that tim e a famous horseman, the manager of a stud farm and a high-ranking officer in the Queens 's corps. It is often said that the circus was born on the back of a horse, because it was Ashley that had the brainwave. One day to relax the stiff atmosphere at a typical English event, popular with the gentry, he brought in jugglers and acrobats from the fair, alternating the horse events with spectacular show elements. And so it was that the modern circus was born.....  

Currently Dr. Frère's collection - one of the biggest in Europe - is housed in four large rooms in the basement of his private home in Tourrette near Monaco. It is not open to the public, but viewing may be arranged with Dr. Frère via the city hall (Tel: 0033-4-93910016).

Prince Rainier once said: “Had I not been a Prince, I would have become an animal tamer”. We are lucky, because during our visit to Dr. Frére's private museum in Tourette, a famous animal tamer is also visiting him. Wolfgang Holzmeier has proved how skilled he is with the big cats and has earned a name for himself as one of the bravest animal tamers in the world.

Love of animals is one thing - to be a hero in the face of death is another! What made Wolfgang Holzmeier wish to enter the “lion's den”?

It was a long climb that began in 1948 - not exactly yesterday! I began in Germany at Franz Althoff's circus as a stall hand and learned how to train there. I started off with horses and elephants until I went to France in 1957. One day, at the circus that I had joined there, the animal trainer ran away. He just didn't want to stay any longer. Consequently, they were in desperate need of a tamer and so I took over 5 tiger and 5 lions. Since then I have trained the animals myself and that's how I became an animal trainer.

Have there been moments when you've been afraid?

Everybody is afraid at some time or other, but you have to be able to overcome the fear - that is the whole point. Whatever the situation. It is only when you have beaten fear that you will lose it.

Have you ever been in a very dangerous situation?

Oh yes. I was once operated on here in Nice by Dr. Frére himself. I'd come back from America where a lion had made a nasty attack on me and torn open my leg and stomach. In American, I was taken to some hospital here the surgeons did an extremely poor job. However, luckily, thanks to Dr. Frére who operated on me later, everything is back to normal now. 

And did you dare to go back into the cage afterwards?

I worked for another year and then gave up, because I'd always sworn to stop working with the lions at 50. And I have kept to that.  

Now the world-famous animal tamer runs a tourist bar in the French tourist town of Cahors and, of course, the bar is full of mementoes, reminiscent of his famous past. And last, but not least, in Dr. Frére's museum, we learn all about the clown - that fool from the Shakespearean stage who continues to play the funny, pantomime roles to this day. Francesco, for example, is one of France 's finest clown. He learned his trade from scratch - in a circus school. However, he was born with a great sense of humour - and when he is at the circus festival in Monaco, his act is always a real highlight.

A poet once wrote that when good humour comes by we should open all the gates and the doors to let it in, because it never comes at an inappropriate time. Good humour is an immediate enrichment, the real key to happiness!

International Circus Festival
Date: January/February
Place: Chapiteau de Fontvieille
Information: (+377) 92 05 23 45

Tourist Information Monaco

Feature Monaco
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* This special feature "Monaco Circus Festival" has been one of more than 300 Portraits, produced by Nathalie Gütermann for her TV-Shows 'Nathalie's Lifestyle' and 'Nathalie's Art of Living' that were broadcasted between 1990 - 2003 in Germany and in 15 countries world-wide. The content has been updated with actual information in 2004 for © 1990 - 2004. The reproduction or other use of any text, photographs, etc. needs the prior written permission of the Chief Publisher.

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