My ‘Backyard Circus’ Taught Me About Life


The summer we were 12, my best friend Bonnie and I decided to earn some extra money by putting on a circus in my backyard. I knew from experience that there were dozens of kids in the neighborhood who needed babysitting, even if just for an hour or so, and that their parents were more than willing to pay for this service. A circus would babysit them all at one time!

The first thing we did was research our project by going to the bookmobile. Remember bookmobiles? Mobile libraries? Now kids wanting entertainment go to Redbox and rent movies — or play games on their cell phones.

Amazingly, that week the bookmobile just happened to be carrying a book entitled Backyard Circuses. Bonnie and I were on our way. We spent weeks building props and painting backdrops. In addition to “lion taming” (which entailed corralling a little brother first), “tightrope walking” (on a 2-by-4 inches off the ground) and lots of clowning around, we held a sideshow inside the garage.

We didn’t want to gouge the neighbors, but we still wanted to make money, so we set our ticket prices at 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for ages 11 and under (12 being the cut-off for adulthood, obviously). The sideshow cost an extra 10 cents, but everybody wanted to see it… my mother, especially, to make sure my little brother was safe.

Inside the garage, Bonnie played her flute and “charmed” a rope out of a basket. I knelt down on a pair of shoes and, with my lower legs hidden, instantly became what was unsympathetically called a midget back then. And, yes, my long-suffering brother was on display, covered in “tattoos” shakily drawn in laundry marker just moments before.

We were rolling in money! The cigar box already held about $10, and there was more to come! That’s because while I was out distributing flyers the day before, I realized we had overlooked a major source of income — concessions.

There was only one problem. Having exhausted our pooled setup capital of $5, I had to ask my father for money. “I think I can make another $3 by selling butterscotch candies,” I told him, adding shyly, “I just need a dollar to buy them with.”

Dad didn’t hesitate. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a buck.

By 4 p.m. the next day, I was sitting at the kitchen table counting coins. The circus had been a resounding success. I was sunburned but ecstatic.

“Wow, dad!” I exclaimed. “We did better than I thought! We made $20.70!”

“Not quite,” he answered. “You have to pay yourself back the $5 you spent on materials, and…” He reached toward the quarters. “You owe me a dollar for the candy. Cost of goods sold.”

Now you might think dad would’ve overlooked that dollar, but he was a businessman, and we were talking business. I am celebrating the 13th year of my antique shop, and one of the reasons we’re successful is that I never, ever kid myself regarding the cost of goods sold. Thanks, dad.