Every Tuesday night, weather permitting, Golf Manor’s Volunteer Park “comes alive,” says Dave Willacker, which is ironic considering part of this resurrection involves a 35-foot-tall rotating metal contraption called the “wheel of death.” Willacker’s telling me this as he climbs into the lower chamber of the wheel and begins running in place, hamster-like, while simultaneously explaining the physics of how this thing works. Essentially, says Willacker, if this structure, which looks like a smaller version of the old salt-and-pepper carnival rides, wasn’t currently undergoing repairs, it would be able to hold two people—one in each circular chamber—and they would each be able to spin their own individual wheels and do tricks while the entire contraption was spinning as well.
Of course that’s not the only thing happening in the lively Tuesday night practices. The main draw, says Willacker, are the aerialists, who inevitably attract a crowd—firemen from the municipal building across the street, a neighbor with wine and a lawn chair. Maybe even Leonard, who’s 93, lives across the street, and has spent abundant time on his front porch ever since the Cincinnati Circus Company moved in.
If you haven’t guessed by now, Dave Willacker is no ordinary guy and his is no ordinary job. Fifteen years ago he was a single dad, working as a high school religion teacher by day, returning circus-related phone calls during class breaks and pursuing his passion—juggling, theater, and entertaining—after hours. Today, he’s married, has seven kids, and is the founder and Ringmaster of the Cincinnati Circus Company, a circus, entertainment-for-hire, and corporate events company with a nationwide presence that’s headquartered in Golf Manor.
The small home-turned-office on his Wiehe Road property is barely visible thanks to the various show trailers often parked on the front lawn, but the real secret here is the 15,000-square-foot warehouse-style building out back. This space houses an aerial training facility (with classes open to the public), plus full-service wood and mechanical shops. It also houses likely the largest and most eclectic collection of circus and entertainment paraphernalia in the tri-state, from Willacker’s massive collection of amusement park rides (110 in all, including the mission-to-Mars rockets and turtle parade rides from Coney Island and a fully operational boat ride from New York’s Conneaut Lake Park), to vintage 1980s arcade games; a giant martini glass, big enough for a person to sit in; a “wine bicycle” resembling something out of Willy Wonka’s imagination; hundreds of costumes (including “the largest collection of stilt walker costumes, possibly anywhere,” says Willacker); DJ equipment; and two Roman-style chariots for racing. Some of these props are standard circus fare; many are the brainchild of Willacker himself, as he’s expanded his business to fit his clients’ needs. When asked how he thinks of incorporating things like wine bicycles and Roman chariots into his company’s shows, Willacker says, simply, “I have free time.”
In reality, though, free time might be the one thing Willacker doesn’t really have. After picking up juggling in college, that hobby morphed into a side hustle for anyone who would hire him—birthday parties, church festivals, River Downs. Soon, he added stilt walking and balloon animals to his repertoire, and found himself hiring out other performers as well. Finally, in 1999, Willacker incorporated the Cincinnati Circus Company after “a buddy called and said: ‘Dave, what you’re running is a business; it’s not a hobby anymore.’ ” Now, says Willacker, “this is all I’ve done for 10 years or more.”
The company currently employs 75 people, from jugglers to aerialists to “elephants” (the humans who do all the heavy lifting for set up, tear down, and storage, nicknamed for the real-life animals who do such jobs at a traditional circus). But one person in particular is pivotal to the operation, says Willacker, and it’s not him. “Everyone here is replaceable except Al [Allert],” the retired auto mechanic who worked fixing cruisers for 20 years at the Los Angeles Police Department and who today keeps everything from Willacker’s delivery trucks to the wheel of death running smoothly. Also invaluable is Dennis Manley, the woodworker who was a “college professor of sculpture, art, and carpentry,” says Willacker, and who has now built everything from magic illusion kits to a circus wagon and popcorn carts.
Good people at every level are key to a successful show, says Willacker, but one thing in particular earns a company true circus cred: a flying trapeze. Even though Willacker had already “brought Cincinnati the first aerial silk rig many years ago,” he says (aerial silks, also known as “fabric acrobatics,” are the basis for Cirque du Soleil), “no one in the circus world would talk to us because they thought we were just an aerial studio. Once we did trapeze, they’re like: ‘Now you’ve got a circus.’ ”
Wheel of death, chariot racing, flying trapeze—these are the makings of insurance companies’ nightmares. Sure enough, confirms Willacker, insurance is hard to find. In reality, though, his motto is: “We do everything we can to make it safe.” This is why Willacker doesn’t allow hair hanging or fire breathing. “I have four buddies who lit their faces on fire,” he says of the latter. Of the former, he simply notes that once he found out how it worked, he decided it wouldn’t be part of his shows. When asked how he manages to make a circus exciting with such a heavy emphasis on safety, he laughs and says, “We’re in Cincinnati, Ohio. It doesn’t take much.”
As he walks past a full-size circus tent folded neatly on a shelf, a stack of unicycles, the prop box for a “human Zoltar” kit, and a musical bubble wagon, Willacker notes that he doesn’t do carnivals, because those are money-driven and “I’m art driven.” Case in point: both those aerial silks and the props he points out next, which are made to be worn by a “living statue” of a U.S. soldier from the Vietnam War, including a rubber duck training rifle and an authentic army uniform that “went to Vietnam and back” during the war (only military veterans are permitted to wear it, says Willacker). The statue debuted on Memorial Day 1997. That day, Willacker noticed a group of veterans standing quietly off in the distance, watching. Eventually, one came up and spoke to him. The man confessed he had a really hard time looking at the performer, because the “statue” essentially took him straight back in time.
Willacker’s dream is to someday get some land and open a small amusement park. If COVID hadn’t happened, in fact, he might be doing that now. In March 2020 he was poised for his biggest year ever, employing 120 people. Then the pandemic hit. “We still had equipment in the field,” he says, but by March 14, “every phone call was a cancellation. By 4 p.m. I laid off the entire staff.” The thing about circus people, though, says Willacker, is they stick together. A big chunk of the staff volunteered their time instead of getting paid, because, they told him, what else were they going to do?
Willacker spent part of the lockdowns helping teach his oldest child, Isaac, how to weld; within months, Isaac had built a 20-foot long by 8-foot wide by 11.5-foot tall red-and-black-striped trailer for the sideshows, with a fold-up sign on top. To make rent, “we mowed people’s lawns, we painted places, did trash removal for people gutting houses—I scraped my way through.”
Now he’s back up to 75 employees, all of whom get free on-the-job training (in acrobatics, juggling, acting, unicycling—you name it). “People don’t come in with skills. They come in with ambition,” says Willacker. “Half or more come in thinking they’ll be the star.” But circus is hard, he says, adding it’s not for everybody. And not a lot of people want to start out at the bottom, which at the Cincinnati Circus Company is as a juggler. The ones who stay, though, really put in the hours.
As a result, the Circus has reach both far and wide. Early last fall, a group of his performers and equipment traveled to Texas. Willacker himself has traveled as far away as Washington state and Hawaii, and still writes for and performs in the murder mystery parties and game shows he puts on for corporate events, as well as a comedy sideshow. But doing all of that while simultaneously running the company can be a challenge, says Willacker, who noted in late August that “I’m out every weekend for the next five weeks.”
Today, his original juggling clubs and balls—the things that started it all—are encased in a custom wooden box hanging on his office wall, slightly worn but still in great shape. Sitting beneath them on an overcast summer Monday, Willacker takes a moment to reflect. “At the end of the day, the question is: What did you leave?” This ringmaster’s hope is that people will say “Dave left the world a better place and was a good father. None of the rest matters.” Still, he does admit wondering “what my kids will think long after I’m gone. I wonder if any of our kids will do circus. I want them to be able to.”