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Circus master who absorbs lessons from biographies

Rob Mermin

Rob Mermin might have run away to join the circus, but eventually he came home. After performing in European circuses for years, he started Circus Smirkus , a Vermont summer camp for aspiring young clowns, aerialists, and acrobats. The troupe performs in Freeport, Maine, Monday and Tuesday, in Hanover, N.H., Thursday through next Sunday, and in Montpelier, Vt., Aug. 13-15.

BOOKS: What are reading currently?

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MERMIN: I just flew in from California last night. I was reading a lot, which got me through the flight. I was going back and forth between an Arthur C. Clarke science-fiction novel, “Childhood’s End,” to take my mind away, and “The Black Count,” a new book by Tom Reiss about Alexandre Dumas’ father. He was a black man from Haiti, essentially the real Count of Monte Cristo. I picked it up because I love all the Dumas novels.

BOOKS: Do you regularly read biographies?

MERMIN: Yeah. It’s a way to learn about the world through other people’s experiences. I’m also reading the biography by Patrick McGilligan about Oscar Micheaux, a man few people know about. He was a black filmmaker in the silent era in the 1920s. Silent film is a specialty of mine. I have some 300 films and a collection of books on silent film and pantomime. I studied with Marcel Marceau.

BOOKS: Any other books about silent film you’d recommend?

MERMIN: A good place to start is with Kevin Bronlow’s “The Parade’s Gone By . . . ” It’s a good, readable intro to the era.

BOOKS: Have you read any biographies on Marceau?

MERMIN: There are none. I was trying to get Marceau to write his autobiography. He didn’t, as far as we know. That was part of my trip to California, talking to people about trying to make a documentary film on him, with maybe a book connected to it.

BOOKS: What else is in your library?

MERMIN: Another area is the new science of consciousness. I just finished “Entangled Minds” by Dean Radin, a scientist who’s studied quantum physics. He asks: Why is science avoiding the extra-sensory experiences we’ve all had? Another book on that topic is “The Holographic Universe” by Michael Talbot. I also have a lot of history books. I’ve read a lot of David Halberstam books, such as “The Children” about the civil-rights movement and “The Fifties,” which is the era I grew up in. I just started “World of Our Fathers” by Irving Howe about the massive Jewish immigration in the early 1900s and how it affected American culture.

BOOKS: Didn’t it have a big effect on vaudeville?

MERMIN: Oh, on Hollywood. Here’s an excellent book I have that I haven’t read yet: “An Empire of Their Own,” written by Neal Gabler, which is about all the major Hollywood studio moguls who were immigrant Jews.

BOOKS: Did you read this much when you were performing in the circus?

MERMIN: When I worked in European circuses during my 20s, I always needed to get my mind away from circus life. Otherwise circus life takes over everything. Circus people then grew up in the circus. When they had free time they would go back in the ring and practice. Since I didn’t grow up as a circus person, I’ve always had other interests. I would read books between shows. Sometimes during intermission I’d pick up a book and go into my caravan and read.

BOOKS: Did any book inspire you to join the circus?

MERMIN: I remember the first books I ever read on my own as a little kid. “Freddy the Pig” books by Walter R. Brooks. They weren’t picture books. Each one was a novel. I think those got me started on my crazy lifestyle because one book was “Freddy and the Spaceship,” another “Freddy the Detective,” another “Freddy the Magician,” on and on. Adventure, that is what life is about. Freddy got me started.

Amy Sutherland

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