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Lord of the ring

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  • | 5:00 a.m. January 26, 2011
"I believe circus people are the unsung heroes of entertainment," Joseph Dominick Bauer Jr. says. "We risk our lives and hope there isn’t a mishap every time we work."
"I believe circus people are the unsung heroes of entertainment," Joseph Dominick Bauer Jr. says. "We risk our lives and hope there isn’t a mishap every time we work."
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It’s the day before Joseph Dominick Bauer Jr.’s headline-making Sarasota stunt.

The fog is so thick you can barely make out the crane hoisting Bauer’s 50-foot Wheel of Thrills to the top of One Watergate — the tallest condominium in downtown Sarasota.

Thirty minutes earlier, the weather on I-75 was dismal.

A torrential downpour pelted the interstate, forcing cars to drive with their hazard lights flashing. The forecast in Bradenton included a tornado watch.

Yet the skies in downtown Sarasota remained dry, which was good enough for Bauer.

He’s not called a daredevil for nothing.

“I’ve never had the wheel this high,” Bauer says hurriedly, perhaps nervously. “I’ve been 100 feet off the ground with Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, but never 240 feet off the ground.”

To clarify, Bauer, 45, explains that the 19-story Watergate tower is only 190 feet from rooftop to ground. His “Wheel of Thrills” adds 50 feet to the spectacle.

Dressed in jeans, boots, a puffy vest and a Hard Rock Café sweatshirt, Bauer, who has just come from the roof, looks less like Circus Sarasota’s dapper ringmaster and more like a construction supervisor.

“Let’s hope the weatherman is good to us tomorrow,” Bauer says, joining his father, Joseph Bauer Sr., and his wife, Caroline, in the condominium parking lot.

The elder Bauer reassures his son that all will be fine. The 78-year-old patriarch of The Fearless Bauers, Joseph Bauer Sr. brought his family sway-pole act from Switzerland to the United States in 1954 when he signed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The Sarasota stunt is especially significant for the father-son duo.

In the 24 years Bauer, a Sarasota native, has performed inside his popular steel contraption, he’s never attempted the stunt in his hometown.

“He was an incredible aerialist,” Bauer later says of his father. “For him to be here now, watching this go down, is really special.”

Joseph Bauer Sr. and Caroline Bauer leave to retrieve coffee.

Bauer takes a seat inside the condo lobby, taking a breather from rigging what he refers to as his “big erecter set” and what his 18-year-old daughter, Ambra, refers to as his “giant hamster wheel.”

Next month, Bauer, a 15th-generation circus performer, will host Circus Sarasota’s winter performances for the fourth year in a row.

It’ll be the first time the circus’ ringmaster will perform a daredevil stunt at the end of the show.

“I think it’ll be neat at the end of the show if the ringmaster actually gets off the ground and does more than just say ‘goodnight’ and ‘good evening,’” Bauer says. “It shows the ringmaster has additional talent. It’ll be a bigger reward for the audience.”

The audience is what concerns Bauer the most.

It’s what has driven him to perform at amusement parks and in big tops and arenas his entire life, beginning with his childhood spent traveling the world with his family’s troupe and now with his “Wheel of Thrills” act, which seven years ago was featured on a 13-episode circus mini series that aired on Bravo TV.

Some daredevils are adrenaline junkies. Bauer, as much as he loves the thrill of the stunt, is, at heart, a people person.

“I don’t want to sound like the Hannah Montana of the circus,” he laughs. “But I’ve always wanted to be a host and an aerialist. I’ve always had stunt work in my blood, so it was a really big thing for me when I was given the opportunity to do both in the same show. After hosting a show for two hours, the people pretty much know me. It’ll be cool to go up in the wheel at the end and have the crowd go, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. What’s the ringmaster up to?’”

Like Circus Sarasota’s previous headlining acts –– daredevil clown Bello Nock and tightrope walker Nik Wallenda –– Bauer was thrilled to pull from his bag of tricks to help generate buzz for the local circus.

Although Bauer felt no pressure to out-do Wallenda’s 600-foot high-wire stunt or Nock’s 92-foot sway-pole spectacle, Circus Sarasota founder and CEO Pedro Reis did.

“There’s extreme pressure,” Reis says. “It’s a nightmare for me to literally ‘top it’ every year. When I hear things like, ‘This is the best circus we’ve ever seen,’ I think, ‘Oh god. What are we going to do next year?’”

Reis is confident that the audience will be blown away when the warm and fuzzy ringmaster they’ve grown familiar with over the years ends the show with a hair-raising stunt.

Bauer agrees.

“I hate being far away from the audience,” Bauer says. “With this condo stunt I know that’s the whole point, but I love the crowd. I love making eye contact.”

For a second he considers the advantages of performing 240 feet in the air, other than the obvious shock factor.

“I can see St. Martha Catholic Church from up there,” he says. “I’ll be doing a little prayer before I begin, so that’s convenient.”

Joseph Dominick Bauer Jr.’s “Wheel of Thrills” is one of two giant space wheels in the world designed by former White House security guard Clay Beckett.

Retired aerialist Leigh Heisinger, who lives in Tallahassee and plans to attend Circus Sarasota’s opening night, owns the second wheel.

The original Beckett space wheels are 64 years old and, according to Bauer, holding up just fine.

“I’ve treated this thing like porcelain,” Bauer says. “It’s expensive to fly, though. Most of the time I ship it, but if I’m doing a one-day gig in Hong Kong, I have to ship it out two months in advance, which can be limiting.”

Bauer says he’d like to purchase Heisinger’s wheel, that way he’d always have one wheel at home and one wheel to send overseas.

Circus Sarasota opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3 and runs through Feb. 21, inside the Big Top at Tuttle Avenue and 12th Street. For more information, call 355-9805 or visit

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]




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