High flying

Can this trapeze artist turned spinal surgeon save the circus?

The Daily Beast

October 23, 2017

Over the last few days, a member of the Big Apple Circus’ flying trapeze act has been encouraging Neil Kahanovitz to “Come up and swing.”

“Part of me really wants to do it, really wants to do it,” Kahanovitz told me in his mobile office, next to the big top itself in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Square. “The mind says, ‘Do it.’ The body says, ‘You can’t.’ I suspect at some time before the season is over, I’ll probably get up there and swing.” His eyes are twinkling with the prospect.

His wife, Suzanne, has told him succinctly, and sensibly: “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Kahanovitz, the chairman of the Big Apple Circus, is both a former trapeze performer himself and one of America’s leading spinal surgeons—who has operated on three Supreme Court justices. He is also a partner in Big Top Works, the new owners of the Big Apple Circus who bought it in February after its nonprofit incarnation went bust. This is, Kahanovitz has said, the second time he has run away to join the circus.

The pressing question facing Kahanovitz, as the Big Apple Circus returns after being forced to cancel its 2016-17 season is, can he—and Big Top partners Richard Perlman, Jim Price, and Barry Salzman of the Compass Partners investment firm—save it from extinction in its 40th anniversary year.

In Kahanovitz, there exists both a romance of the circus that dates back to his childhood, and the cherished experience of living that dream, alongside the cold, hard financial realities of making the Big Apple Circus a profitable concern.

Kahanovitz is an agile and handsome 68, with salt and pepper hair, and his love of circus is clear in all that he says, talking, for example, about the Big Apple Circus being an example of the modern, intimate circus, rather than the three-ring circuses of yore made famous in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.

The Big Apple Circus, which feels snug and intimate under its blue awning, has no seat more than 50 feet away from the ring, and since Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed after 146 years earlier this year, claims to be America’s pre-eminent circus, employing that art form’s best performers.

Kahanovitz grew up in Baltimore, the first of his family to go to college. His father Jake was a bartender, his mother Bettie a housewife. He has a younger sister, Lynn, who is a retired teacher.

As a child he was only interested in two things, he said: working for the circus and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. At 4, his mother took him to see the Ringling Bros. circus in Baltimore. There, he recalls hearing a big noise and from then on was terrified of clowns until he was 7 or 8.

At elementary school, he “devoured” any book he could find on the circus, especially putting on clown makeup, and, aged 8, built a trapeze in his backyard from a broomstick and two pieces of rope. “It was absolutely fascinating. I just found the whole thing magical.”

He was also a “pretty serious student. I realized my way out of whatever trap I was in—and I grew up in a happy, middle-class home—was to go to medical school.”

At 13, Kahanovitz broke his elbow playing ice hockey, and was fascinated by the surgeons repairing his arm using a couple of pins. “The orthopedic surgeon who did it was like a god to me. I wanted to be just like that guy.”

One morning, en route to another day of his senior year at high school, Kahanovitz saw the Ringling Bros. circus setting up at an arena near the train yard. With a friend, he went to investigate.

“It was like magic,” he said. “It was like walking into Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! To see this magical transformation of an arena, which I had been to a million times to watch hockey games, now transformed with guys climbing around the girders dropping wires for the trapeze and the animals coming in, was amazing—a defining moment.”

Kahanovitz later landed a summer job at the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros Circus, as a “candy butcher,” selling cotton candy and popcorn to audiences.
Someone got hurt in the trampoline act; and trampolining was something Kahanovitz had already done as training for diving. “I told them I had never done trampolining in front of more than two people. They said they’d try me out, and it worked out.

“I did the comedy. I was the guy falling off, or going through the springs, and doing somersaults off the trampoline, with my pants flying off. The guy who did the more serious tricks was much better than I will ever be. He would do somersaults and I would catch him on my shoulders.”

His trampoline partner taught him how to do aerial moves, and so Kahanovitz graduated to the aerial trapeze next.

“You’d have to be crazy not to be scared,” Kahanovitz recalled of preparing to launch himself from the trapeze platform for the first time.

“You never forget the first time swinging off what they call the pedestal. You grab the trapeze and fly off. There’s this exhilarating feeling of the wind and air whipping by your head, and you have this sense of flight that’s so cool. You are pretty scared to death. You think, ‘What am I doing up here?’

Once you get used to it it’s thrilling, and you’re able to interact with the audience, and play off the audience for comedy.”
Kahanovitz stayed with the circus for five years, delaying going to medical school. His parents were not happy: “I think what they said was a variation of ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I also think they thought I was crazy and would never come back.

“There were no cellphones in those days. They had no idea where I was. I’d call them from a payphone once a week. But when the circus came to Washington and Baltimore they’d come to see me and were very proud.”

It sounds very unique, being stuck between a passion for circus and passion for becoming a spinal surgeon.

“I just felt they were both things I wanted to do. As much as circus intrigued me, medicine also really intrigued me. As a young person, it’s not unusual having different desires you want to fulfill. I felt as passionate about one as I did the other.”

Finally, Kahanovitz went to medical school, then spent five years doing orthopedic surgery in a series of hospitals in the Los Angeles area. He did different electives in joint replacement, hand surgery, and spine surgery—and it was for the latter that he felt the same excitement, “in terms of both challenge and possibilities,” as he had for the circus.

Kahanovitz has never operated on anyone associated with the circus, but he has been around some pretty graphic injuries suffered by performers.

By then a third-year medical student, Kahanovitz was at Los Angeles Airport on Aug. 6, 1974, about to join a group of circus performers for an engagement in Hawaii, when Muharem Kurbegovic, the so-called Alphabet Bomber, exploded a device, killing three and injuring 36 others.

“Our bus had just pulled up, and I remember the window just falling out. There was a boom and smoke. Until the paramedics came, I was the only one with any medical training. There were so many badly injured people: One guy had a big hole in his chest, others were badly bleeding. I will never forget it; the destruction, and the smell which was a rubbery, acrid smell I have never smelled since: a combination of flesh and the explosion that is something you never want to smell.”

At the circus Kahanovitz has seen acrobats who have fallen, generally during aerial trapeze, or from the high wire, like a performer in Wisconsin who landed on his head and died. He himself has gotten “banged up, but nothing serious.” He is, he said smiling, known as “Doc Neil” in the circus world.
Kahanovitz’s career in spinal surgery has been stellar by any measure, with a series of high-profile posts, like running the spinal-deformity unit in a New Orleans hospital, and working as a chief of spinal surgery in a New York hospital, and then head of spine surgery at a Washington D.C hospital.

He became an authority on using electrical stimulation to get bones to heal in the spine, and is a former president of the North American Spine Society.

He said Americans’ general spinal health, particularly our muscles, has not been helped by office life, with many sitting at desks and looking at computers for long periods of time.

Kahanovitz operated on Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy (his neck), William Rehnquist, and Byron White (both their lower backs). “The security outside the operating room was intense. You realized this wasn’t an average Joe in the neighborhood.” (He received a Commendation from the United States House Physician’s Office for these surgeries.)

Kahanovitz also went with other specialists to help treat victims of the devastating Armenian earthquake of December 1988, which led to Kahanovitz being awarded the Order of the Supreme Soviet Medal of Personal Courage.

“People there were partially paralyzed or had terrible, unstable spinal injuries having been trapped in buildings,” Kahanovitz recalled. “Had we not gone there, these people would not have been cared for or would have ended up completely paralyzed or disabled forever. To be able to go over there and do something for these people, who would not have had any possibility for receiving that level of care, really stood out as a highlight of my career.”

Kahanovitz stopped operating a year and a half ago, when the opportunity to run the Big Apple Circus came up. “There wasn’t anything I was truly passionate about that would make me work 12 to 15 hours a day when this came along,” he said, smiling. “I am working harder and longer hours than I ever have.”

I said that he did not seem too dejected about this.

Kahanovitz smiled. “You can probably tell that I’m not the kind of guy who would look forward to a quiet day on the porch.”

He has produced plays and musicals on Broadway, in London’s West End, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Off-Broadway, and he is excited that, himself having worked with Delilah Wallenda, the Big Apple Circus will host the wire skills of her son Nik, famous for such feats as walking the tightrope slung across the Niagara Falls. Nik is the seventh generation of the circus act-performing family.

Wallenda will attempt to construct the seven-person pyramid on the high wire with The Fabulous Wallendas, while The Flying Tunizianis will attempt the quadruple somersault on the trapeze—the first time in circus history that both legendary feats will be performed under the same big top.

“I don’t think I have heard anything but that people are excited to see us back,” said Kahanovitz of the anticipation for the Big Apple Circus’ return.
At one arts event, he said, he was asked over and over again, “How does it feel to save the circus in America?”

“If this doesn’t work,” Kahanovitz told me, “we’ve lost part of American history and tradition. It’s something that generations and generations of people have taken their children to, and that will disappear. That will be gone.”

How long will Kahanovitz and his business partners give it before they decide that the circus is or isn’t coming?

“I think we’ll see if people come,” he replied crisply.

Then he smiled: “Let’s walk around.” We exited his trailer office and headed towards the big top, which had many workmen in little forklift trucks and groups of huddled workers talking logistics, and scaling up rigging, as quick and graceful as gazelles. A huge pile of sand was in the middle of the arena awaiting leveling off. A stage-design backdrop of the New York City skyline awaited positioning.

“There are smaller circuses out there,” said Kahanovitz. “There will always be circuses, but not at this level—meaning size and quality.”

He called Perlman last year, after being asked if he knew anyone who would want to buy the Big Apple Circus. If Perlman and his colleagues had not invested in it, said Kahanovitz, the Big Apple Circus would have survived in name only and likely have been forced to relocate.

Kahanovitz initially thought he would work in a marketing role. “I had no idea I would end up running this thing. To be honest with you, I haven’t had a chance to enjoy it. I am so focused and caught up in making it work, because there is so much at stake.”

After its residency at Lincoln Square the circus will go on tour, and then, said Kanahovitz, hopefully expand.

So, retirement is a distant prospect, I suggested.

Kahanovitz smiled. After his work in Armenia, someone said to him, “Why don’t you just stop for a day and just enjoy what you’ve done?”

“I don’t know,” Kahanovitz said smiling. “Even this morning, my wife said to me, ‘This is the last one, no more big projects.’ But she’s said that before.’”

As we watched the furious hive of human activity, the shouting, and the honking of trucks, Kahanovitz revealed that a year and a half ago he discovered he had a daughter (and two grandchildren) he never knew existed.

His long-lost daughter Stephanie wrote to him to say: “47 years ago you had a blind date at a drive-in in Ashton, Virginia. I was born nine months later.”

It was shocking, he said, but ultimately lovely, as Stephanie and her children, Lilli, 16, and Audrey, 13, have become part of the family. (Stephanie had been put up for adoption, and lost her adoptive mother and brother in a car accident; her adoptive father had died in another car accident.)

He also two daughters with Suzanne: Lexi, a writer and producer in Los Angeles, and Katie, who works in real estate in New York. Both are planning weddings this year.

Kahanovitz and I wandered around the ring, he recalling a documentary about a small circus company whose presenter asked one circus member why he loved doing what he was doing. The response: “If you have to ask you’ll never understand.”

Kahanovitz said, “That’s so true. That morning I went down to see the circus in Baltimore was like going from a black and white movie to technicolor.

Near a rack of colorful clothes, Lolis Vargas, the Big Apple Circus’ head of wardrobe, said her family was one of five generations of circus performers.

As a young girl, she learned how to walk the high wire, fly the trapeze, and ride elephants. “You have no fear when you’re young,” she said. “This is the rebirth of circus. It’s in our blood, it really is. We say we have sawdust in our blood.”

Vargas’ son is an acrobatic clown, and her daughter does an aerial act. “It’s my life, it’s what I love to do,” said Vargas. “I love the circus: just being part of it, moving from city to city, country to country. It’s a wonderful world. You can learn from the circus. It’s a United Nations. You meet people from all over the world, and learn to accept other cultures and languages. This is a community.”

There were other performers backstage—muscular, lithe, and again speaking of belonging and being part of multi-generational circus families. There were also pens holding the 18 ponies that feature in the show, the animals resting or munching on food.

The circus is an utterly self-contained community: the ultimate live/work space. In another part of Damrosch Square are all the performers’ mobile homes, with plant pots and foldout chairs outside. In the mobile canteen, where everybody eats all their meals, tacos and tuna casserole were being prepared for lunch.

Perlman and Price, there to meet with Kahanovitz, looked optimistically, and realistically, towards the big top. “We will see if people still have an appetite for it,” said Perlman. As well as the financial fortunes of a show, an entire way of life—and huge swathes of intertwining family and cultural histories—are at stake.

His family have never seen Kahanovitz perform. He had finished his circus life, or thought he had, by the time he was married, and yet—if his heart wins out over his head—they may yet see him up on the high wire, relishing the wind and air whipping past his face once again.

Clowns, Kahanovitz assured me, no longer scared him. “The Big Apple Circus scares me if it doesn’t work, but I’m sure it will.”

As we said farewell, I asked Kahanovitz how genuinely hopeful he was that he could save the Big Apple Circus.

“With everything that they do, I tell my children ‘Go out there and do it, try it. You won’t know till you do,’” he replied.

So yes, Suzanne Kahanovitz might want to prepare to see her husband back up on that trapeze.