Something Better Than the Circus Spotlight
As told by Anton Ivanoff
WHEN I was young my goal was to have the best circus act in the world. I wanted to be in the spotlight. Years passed, and I reached that goal. I performed before the kings of Romania and Yugoslavia, the presidents of Turkey and the United States, and many other well-known political figures. I also worked with many movie stars. Yet I later found something better than the spotlight of the circus. But before I explain that let me tell you something about my life in the circus.
I was born in 1906 to a very poor family. We lived in the village of Dragievo, in the center of Bulgaria. During World War I economic conditions deteriorated to the point that my parents just could not support my four brothers and sisters and me. So in 1913 my father was forced to give me over to the monastery, where I was to be raised as a monk.
I stayed in the monastery for a couple of years, waiting on the monks. I would get up early in the morning to ring the bell, start the fire and light the incense. I grew accustomed to life in the monastery. The monks would tell me, “You’re going to be a good monk when you grow up.”
I came within months of becoming just that. However, things changed when my elder brother, Cristo, contacted me at the monastery. Upon hearing of my plans to be a monk, he cried:
“Are you crazy?” “You don’t want to be a monk! I’m going to come and steal you away from there!” So when he came for me one night, I sneaked away with him.
Eventually in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, I enrolled in a gymnastics course. I did well. The circus director heard about me, watched me perform and said:
“You have such talent you can make a lot of money. You can be a big star. You can travel and see many places.” Wonderful words for a sixteen-year-old boy to hear! I asked no questions—I went with him to become a circus performer.
Life in the Circus
I worked very hard. I was determined to be famous. I was chosen to be on top of a pyramid of men and I did a handstand in that position. I also had an act where I hung by my teeth while holding two people. Soon I was in the spotlight of the circus.
Life in the circus, however, was not as glorious as I thought it would be. Practicing routines over and over again was hard work—every day from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. Then, too, competition ran very high among performers. Some performers would do anything just to be in the spotlight. For example, in Germany one Bulgarian circus performer, who had a name similar to mine, actually began using my name because of the popularity of my act. I had to take him to court.
If you performed better than another, you were hated and belittled by that person. If you did not perform as well, then your inferiority was magnified. In fact, I recall two competing trapeze acts where so much jealousy and hatred existed among the performers that someone from one act partially cut one of the wires, so that during the act the wire broke, killing one of the performers. Imagine, committing murder to avoid sharing the spotlight!
In 1926 I began living with Greda, a fellow performer. Her father threatened to kill me. So we left the area and traveled together through the Orient and along the Russian and Iranian border, doing Russian dancing and acrobatics in the cabarets. Then one evening in 1935, while we were performing, Greda looked out into the audience and was shocked to see her father sitting in the front row. She got very upset and ran to her dressing room, crying. I followed her, and soon her father was standing at the door. I thought he was going to kill me, but instead he said, “I’m going to see to it that you get married right here!”
The next day a town crier with a parade of elephants went through the town announcing that before the audience that very evening the two best performers in the circus were going to be married. Three circuses in the area got together and put on a special performance for the occasion. All the townspeople came for the wedding.
Some time later Greda got very sick and for three years she was in and out of the hospital. Then, in 1941, while I was away performing, I received a telegram telling me that Greda had died. What added to my grief was the fact that I hadn’t seen Greda for some time, and I hadn’t been with her to share her last moments. I couldn’t stand to be in Bulgaria anymore, so I joined an aerial act, traveling through Europe.
Performing Before Hitler’s Troops
By this time World War II was raging and I began performing before the officers of Hitler’s army. One evening I even performed before Hermann Göring. During the act that night I fell and tore a muscle. Göring laughed and laughed. He thought it was part of the act.
At the time I thought I was doing a good thing to entertain Hitler’s troops. I knew killing was wrong and so I was not in favor of war. But, on the other hand, when I listened to Hitler speak I believed that he was a good man, and he appeared to be well motivated. In fact, when I fell while performing before Göring and had to stay in the hospital for three months, I was treated as if I were a German soldier. I didn’t have to pay for the medical treatment.
However, my viewpoint changed as I learned about the mass killing in the concentration camps. I will never forget what I saw when I entertained the officers at the Mauthausen camp. As we approached, we could see the people standing in the yard. From a distance they looked just like skeletons. “What is this?” we asked one another in shock. “Why do they treat these people like animals?”
Later on the Nazis charged that I had been listening to the London radio station. They planned to execute me. But before this could happen, the American army came, and I switched to entertaining the American troops.
In 1945 I met a girl coming from East Germany on a refugee train. Her name was Gerda. We got married the next year and later on had a baby boy.
Coming to the United States
It was in 1950 that my brothers, who were now working for the Ringling Brothers’ circus, invited me to come to the United States. I accepted the invitation, and we performed together and were known as The Three Ivanovs. We appeared at Radio City Music Hall in New York city, the Big Top in Philadelphia, the Super Circus in Chicago, as well as on the Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason television shows.
Then, in 1956, while I was performing in Toronto, Canada, I fell and broke my hand. It wasn’t my first fall. In Turkey in 1927, when I was about twenty-one years of age, I was in an act where I held two men with my teeth while I hung upside down from a rope tied to my feet. During one performance the rope suddenly broke, plunging the three of us to the ground. Although I hurt my neck and shoulder, I was performing again within a month. Then, in Vienna, when I was about thirty-seven years of age, I again fell while performing and broke my hand. Three months later I was back in the circus.
This time, however, age was beginning to catch up with me. I had to leave the circus. I felt as if I had lost my whole purpose in life.
Little did I realize then that I was shortly to find something better than the “glory” I had enjoyed in the circus.
Finding Something Better
Gerda and I settled in New York city, where I became a waiter in a well-known restaurant on Broadway, and she opened a gift shop. Across the street from the gift shop was a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Gerda became curious about the people she saw going in and out, and soon she was studying the Bible with them. Gerda became excited about what she was learning from the Bible, and in 1958 she was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I was critical of her new religion. She would try to talk to me about the things she was learning, but I wouldn’t listen. I was especially critical of the name “Jehovah” for God. Then one day Gerda showed me this name in my Bulgarian Bible. What a shock! This name had been there all this time and I had never heard it, not even in the monastery.
I became curious. “Why do these people believe so differently from other religions?” I wondered. “Don’t they all use the Bible?” So when I would go to the Kingdom Hall to pick up Gerda from the meeting, I would go while the meeting was still in progress and stand in the back of the hall and listen. The things I heard caused me to examine my own beliefs.
For instance, when I was in the monastery, I was taught that if I confessed my sins at church and gave money, I would be forgiven. I believed and practiced this. Circus life was not very conducive to abstaining from sin, and I had my share of gambling, drinking and immorality. I fully expected that giving money to the church and making a confession would bring me relief from the troubled conscience that resulted from such a life-style.
But it didn’t, and I wondered: “Why am I still unhappy?” From what I learned at the meetings and from listening to Gerda, I began to realize that I had to make changes in my life. In fact, I had to change my whole way of thinking.
In the meantime we bought a house in Pennsylvania and Gerda moved there while I continued working a little longer as a waiter so that I could collect a pension. I asked one of the Witnesses to study the Bible with me and I progressed rapidly. I didn’t tell Gerda that I was studying until one day, in 1968, when I called her and told her that I was to be baptized the following week. She was overjoyed, and the next day she was on a bus to New York to be with me.
Since that time I have been able to reach some other circus performers with the “good news” of the Bible. Many of them knew me in Bulgaria when I had a wild life-style, and they could not understand what caused me to change. I have had many opportunities to explain to them the wonderful hope that I have for the future, that of living in a righteous new order of things here on earth. (2 Peter 3:13) In fact, Gerda and I were able to start a Bible study with one former circus performer and she is now also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with her six sons.
During the time I was in the circus my happiness and satisfaction came from the praise and honor I received because of my performances. Now, as a servant of Jehovah, I have inner satisfaction and happiness far beyond the temporary glory of the circus, and I have a glorious hope for the future. So, instead of seeking to be in the spotlight before crowds of people, I now find joy in putting the spotlight on God’s Word, the Bible, and the hope it holds out for all mankind.