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Big Apple Circus could be coming to Peabody

Stephanie Monseu is the ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus, which could be coming to Peabody in April. (Photo by Juliana Crawford courtesy of the Big Apple Circus. )

PEABODY — If Mayor Edward Bettencourt Jr. gets his way, the Big Apple Circus will come to the North Shore next spring.

After years of performing in Boston’s Government Center Plaza and last year at Assembly Row in Somerville, the big top may have found a new home at the Northshore Mall.

The mayor said the City Council is expected to approve an application for the circus to perform under a 1,600-seat tent for six weeks in April and May.

“This is exciting for the city and will put us on the map,” said Bettencourt.

He recently met with Dr. Neil Kahanovitz, one of the circus’ owners, who pitched the idea and asked for his support.

The Assembly Row site is no longer available because construction is underway on the parcel, Kahanovitz told him. Bettencourt enthusiastically embraced the idea.

“Somerville’s loss is our gain,” he said.  

Founded in 1977, the Big Apple Circus performed 38 seasons from its home at New York City’s Lincoln Center and around the country. At its peak in 2008, the nonprofit circus performed more than 350 shows in eight cities and generated more than $18 million in sales annually, according to GuideStar, the tracker of nonprofit tax filings.

Big Apple was seen as an alternative to the now defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the pricier Cirque Du Soleil, where prices range from $100 to $250.

Big Apple won praise from families of children with disabilities for the circus’ programs for blind, deaf and autistic children and because they offered free and discounted tickets to low-income families. Regular ticket prices range from $15 to $95.

But the 2008 financial crisis took its toll as attendance fell and  contributions from donors, federal agencies and foundations remained flat as costs continued to rise.

After Big Apple failed to raise $2 million in a “Save the Circus” fundraising effort, they were forced to cancel the 2016–17 season, and file for bankruptcy, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

Kahanovitz, who had performed as a clown and aerialist before he became a doctor, led a group of investors who bought the Big Apple Circus in 2017 for $1.3 million.

“It’s like operating a 40-year startup,” Kahanovitz told The Item on being chairman of Big Apple. “I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life.”

That’s quite a statement for the retired 69-year-old Maryland spinal cord surgeon who operated on three Supreme Court justices, Anthony Kennedy, Byron White, and William H. Rehnquist, and served as the doctor for the Cirque du Soleil during its area appearances.

On why he chose Peabody, Kahanovitz said the North Shore has always been on their radar, but Somerville was closer to Boston. With Assembly Row unavailable, he talked with the Simon Property Group, the publicly-held company that owns the Northshore Mall and other properties across the globe.

“Boston is probably the most difficult place on the east coast to find vacant real estate because there’s no space left anymore,” he said. “Cirque du Soleil went to Suffolk Downs last year and that’s been demolished. The Northshore Mall is perfect.”

If approved by the council, the tent will be located in a parking lot across from Barnes & Noble.

“It’s really a no-lose deal for any city where we go,” he said. “We provide programs for autistic kids, we donate the first night’s proceeds to a local charity, and the quality of the show is amazing.”

Peabody will join New York, Philadelphia, and suburban Washington D.C. that offer Big Apple shows, Bettencourt said.

“Now, Peabody will be part of those big name cities,” he said. “The circus will bring thousands of people here and there will be economic benefits for restaurants and the mall.”

He is especially supportive of the circus because it makes its shows accessible for people with special needs.

Circus of the Senses enables anyone with vision or hearing impairments and other disabilities to experience the circus through the use of wireless headsets which use an infrared transmission system, and feature a play-by-play description of the action in the ring. In addition, American Sign Language interpreters sign throughout the performances.

Bettencourt also said Big Apple has experience working with fire, police, health, and Department of Public Works staff to make the short visit run smoothly.

“There will be traffic issues and that’s being worked out, and the mall has 6,900 parking spaces, and that should be plenty of parking,” he said. “We want to make sure the traffic is not detrimental to the Brooksby Farm neighborhood.”

The circus pays for police details and the six-week event doesn’t cost the city a cent, the mayor said.

“I’m really excited about it bringing positive attention to Peabody, ” he said. “It’s a family-friendly circus that will be wonderful for our community to enjoy.”

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