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Mean Old Frisco

UniverSoul's hip-hop circus can't shake old-fashioned allegations.


In 1992, Cedric Walker had a vision: a hip-hop circus. "I wanted something clean and wholesome, like Motown and Soul Train," says the former rap promoter and theater producer.

"People told me that black people don't go to circuses," he says. But Walker thought that traditional circus acts packaged with funk, soul, rap, urban slang and culture, wrapped in an atmosphere of family values, could change that.

He was right. The UniverSoul Circus expects thousands to attend its nine shows this week at Swope Park.

UniverSoul aims to teach inner-city kids that anything's possible using, among other unique acts, Ghetto clown Maybelle, who sports nappy hair and Coke-bottle glasses.

The show features acts from all over the world, including Emmy-nominated aerialist Jean Claude, the Twisted Sistas contortionists, a Russian acrobat trio, tigers, lions, a donkey with an attitude, and three elephants named Becky, Tracy and Susie.

UniverSoul's two circuses tour nine months a year. Black icons such as Nelson Mandela, Diana Ross and Magic Johnson have attended the show. Black communities in every major city have embraced the circus as their own.

But if Walker has succeeded in repackaging an old form of entertainment for a newer and blacker audience, his circus still has close ties to the rest of the industry and to one of its ever-present liabilities -- accusations of animal mistreatment.

Fans walking into UniverSoul's show this Saturday may notice picketers from Animal Outreach of Kansas, who plan to protest that circus as well as the Ararat Shrine Circus at Municipal Auditorium.

"Exotic animal acts in circuses need to be totally eliminated," says Judy Carman, cofounder of AOK. For ammunition, she plans to exhibit for ticket buyers filing into the circus a graphic video that shows the brutal treatment Becky suffered when the UniverSoul elephant was in training at another outfit, the Carson & Barnes Circus.

Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released video footage documenting an undercover investigation of the training methods at Carson & Barnes, which leases elephants to other companies, including UniverSoul.

"Sink it in the foot! Tear it off! Make 'em scream!" trainer Tim Frisco yells in the six-minute video, shot by PETA's Bryan Smith, who spoke to the Pitch on the condition that his real last name not be revealed. Smith says he's received death threats since his investigation, which took place from 1999 to 2001

In the video, Frisco disciplines three elephants, including Becky, using a bullhook, a long rod with a steel hook used to jab an elephant's tender spots.

"Becky! Becky! You motherfucker!" Frisco yells, beating her with a bullhook as she cries out with loud, trumpeting screams. Also on the tape is a handler burning hair off an elephant with a blowtorch, and Frisco swinging the bullhook like a baseball bat, demonstrating how to deliver uppercuts to the sensitive chins of elephants. "You can't do it on the road," Frisco says. "I'm not going to touch her in front of a thousand people."

Smith says abuse is common. He tells of elephants being smashed between the eyes with baseball bats, elephant skin catching fire from blowtorches, bullhooks being imbedded into bloody trunks and spines, and electric prods being applied to elephants' genitals.

Carson & Barnes and Frisco didn't respond to inquiries from the Pitch, but the Carson & Barnes Web site claims, "Our elephants are only trained through positive reinforcement."

"The only thing positive about the training is that they were positively beaten," Smith says. "I guarantee you, if you go look at Becky, you'll see little white marks on her. Tracy, and especially Susie, you'll find the remnants of hook marks, of beatings."

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