All in the family
Union — The Kent Family Magic Circus is headed back to Union Fair with a more expanded show than the last time it was here, a gig they shared with a branch of the famous Wallendas. The Kents and the Wallendas spent some time together again this summer, in St. Louis; but while the Wallendas go back generations under the Big Top, the Kents are forging a new family tradition.
“No, no, my family’s military — Air Force, Navy, Marines,” said patriarch Victor Kent from an engagement in a small town in West Virginia. “But my grandma gave me a magic kit when I was a kid and I really liked it.”
His own children — he and his Japanese-born wife Mami have seven — seem to like it too. The family act began as a magic show, but when eldest son Jim was about 5, “he just started balancing things,” said Kent. Now known as Juggling Jim, the 24-year-old has balanced agricultural fair queens sitting on 6-foot poles, among other amazing feats. He likes a challenge … in fact, that’s part of the act.
“We invite people to bring ‘challenges.’ At one fair, a girl, whose father was a feed supply vendor there, brought a 50-pound bag of goat food. Jim got a tennis racket out of his juggling equipment and figured out a way to balance that bag on his face,” said Kent.
Juggling Jim — also known as Frostache for his Afro-like hair, inherited from his paternal grandfather, and matching mustache — is not the only juggler in the family. Mami does some juggling too, having started performing four years ago when the family met one of its own challenges in an innovative way. Sixteen-year-old son Titus has a rare mitochondrial disorder with cerebral palsy-like effects. He uses a wheelchair and cannot walk or talk, although he understands what he sees and hears. The family’s current home is in northern California in part because one of the few specialists in the country is in San Francisco.
“For the first 12 years of his life, he stayed home; we thought he wouldn’t be able to tolerate all the traveling. But then the Discovery Network did a thing on us and we had to make a 12-hour drive south. We did it as kind of a test, and it turns out he liked traveling,” Kent said.
The family bought an old RV and spent some time learning how to live out of it, really putting the idea of Titus traveling to the test. The verdict? “He really CAN do it,” said Kent.
In fact, Titus now performs once a day with the circus, doing what Kent calls a self-working magic trick that involves some of the troupe’s animals. These include a toy poodle named Tater Tot and a couple of other poodles; a ball python; and a tortoise, with which Mami does a gag stunt. Kent said he got the tortoise — and a cockatoo — in part because he didn’t want to go through having to lose a pet he’d bonded with again.
“And they’ll outlive me! The kids have each bonded with one of the animals and, of course, I’ve gotten attached anyway,” he said.
While the Kent Family Magic Circus plays its share of the really mammoth state fairs, Kent said its best fit is an engagement such as the one in West Virginia — “It’s a town of 3,000, but 60,000 come to the fair” — and Union Fair. He stressed that the “Family” in the circus’ name stands for the audience, not the Kents … and they strive not to be “too professional.”
“Teaching the dogs, for example — they got too good at performing the tricks, so I had to train them to misbehave. If you think it’s hard to train dogs to do the right thing, well! This way, people watching will laugh and say, that’s kind of like ‘my’ dog,” he said.
The children, some of whom work with the dogs, have multiple tricks up their performance sleeves. They all walk the 5-foot tightrope; the younger girls, age 8 and 11, practice aerial arts via a field trapeze setup; Kent’s youngest son and namesake, who is 13, does a medical strait jacket escape hanging from the trapeze upside down.
“Actually, all of them have been in the strait jacket; I have a joke about it in the show,” he said.
All of the children are home schooled through eighth grade and then attend public high school, except for Titus. The older ones all placed at AP level in high school and ended up winning scholarships for college; two have graduated and one son is a junior. Perhaps Kent’s approach to the circus and magic arts is part of their academic success.
“The 13-year-old walks the Machete Ladder barefoot and jumps into a box of broken glass, and I eat fire every show — all of it is science! But even if you tell people if you do it this way, it’s safe, it’s still a thrill,” he said, admitting he occasionally gets a burned lip.
“You have to respect what you’re doing. This is not a job you can just ‘show up’ in, you have to stay focused,” he said.
Since Titus joined the troupe, the Kent Family Magic Circus can do longer tours. This year, they began in March and will be on the road until the end of October (they do corporate gigs and the like in the off season), slowly working their way back to California. The couple’s eldest daughter is already there, preparing the family home for sale. The Kents are planning to move to Kentucky, a location that offers a bucolic home base/training camp with many performance destinations within an eight-hour radius, including Chicago and Atlanta. Also about eight hours away is one of the specialists in Titus’ disorder, so it seems the right place to relocate.
The Kent Family Magic Circus will present 45-minute shows daily Tuesday through Saturday, Aug. 19 through 23. Every show, a mix of magic and vaudeville variety, is a little different, said Kent. With going on 20 years of performance, he estimated they have 30 to 40 hours of non-repeating entertainment to select from. Kent said the family is looking forward to returning to the Union Fair and “I’m looking forward to having lobster and blueberries.”
Fresh produce is no small thing for people who are always on the road, but playing agricultural festivals has its rewards that way. Because the Kent Family Magic Circus has many annual stops around the country during the summer, people often bring the family tomatoes and other fresh produce from their gardens, something the Kents truly appreciate. And after their Union Fair stint, they will get an even rarer gift.
“We’ll have the next two weeks off,” Kent said.
The Kent Family Magic Circus show times are 1 and 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; and 2 p.m. Saturday. Union Fair begins Saturday, Aug. 16; the complete schedule is in a program inserted in the Aug. 14 newspapers and online at knox.villagesoup.com, as well as at the fair’s website, unionfair.org.