"We have the best of the best here," Tell says enthusiastically, autographing programs for starry-eyed kids after a recent performance. "You can travel all over the world, and you will never find a circus as beautiful and with as much class as Barnum's Kaleidoscape."
The intimate one-ring show -- an old-world European circus that's pitching its red-and-white-striped tent, complete with red velvet spectators' seats, at the Nautica Entertainment Complex beginning this weekend -- dazzles audiences with a cosmopolitan array of performers. Among them are Pipo, a traditional Parisian harlequin, and his zany sidekick, David Larible, winner of the 1999 Golden Clown award; a 27-inch Hungarian midget; high-flying Russian acrobats; and the amazing Golden Statues -- three beefcakes from Morocco who contort themselves into uncanny positions.
But while all the performers have amazing talents, Tell has perhaps the riskiest skill of all, passed down to the proud Frenchman from a long family line of sharpshooters. At the turn of the century, his granny was the famous "Miss Carbine" -- a gun-toting Calamity Jane-type with the Buffalo Bill Show in Paris. "My father and uncle did the act in the '40s and '50s," Tell explains. "We hadn't done sharpshooting in the family for over 30 years, and then I started it again in the mid-'80s."
But Tell's first performance, in 1985, was downright humiliating. The budding dead-eye was attempting to shoot a carnation held by his assistant. "I had to shoot 17 times before I hit the flower," he wails. Through trial and error, he eventually taught himself to be both the sharpshooter and target.
Practicing inside his arrow-littered bachelor pad, Tell jerry-rigged a contraption of self-launching crossbows in the living room, where he religiously practiced hitting an apple placed on a tray. "I must have done it 200 times," he says. "It was early in the morning, and without telling my father, I put the apple on my head and shot it off. And -- pardon the expression -- I almost messed myself."
Thus was born Tell's death-defying finale -- and he's never been injured, although he has had a few close calls. "Once the arrow hit very low and at the bottom of the apple, and I could feel it on my hair," he says with a sheepish grin. "That was a scary feeling."
Upon perfecting his act, Tell incorporated the equally talented -- and incredibly trusting -- Regina Bouglione into it. The exotic Parisian woman is a fourth-generation circus performer who began her career as a foot juggler. "The first time I worked with him was in Germany in 1995, and we drive all night," Bouglione says in broken English. The two arrived late and missed their crucial rehearsal time. As a result, Bouglione did exactly as she was told and bravely stood in front of the target, while Tell shot arrows that landed dangerously close to her. "Afraid? No. Nervous? Yes," she says. "But not because I didn't trust him, but because I might make a mistake."
Since then, the two daredevils have honed their craft into a highly entertaining art form, but they admit there's still a degree of uncertainty. "You never know what can happen," says Tell. "There's always that risk involved."
And there are always people who'll pay to see them take it.
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