A circus legend’s story in quotes by Emily Fulton

Photo: http://stilljudy.com/still-judy/

When you think of Judy Finelli, what comes to mind? I’m guessing your response was either “Hold up; you didn’t tell me this was a test” or “I have no clue, tell me more.” Those are both completely valid responses, and probably how I would have answered that question just six months ago. Keep reading if you want to learn about this incredible woman. 

You will notice that most of the article consists of quotes from an interview I did with her, with a bit of commentary from myself. I chose to do this because I wanted you to have the opportunity to hear her story in her words, to get a sense of her personality and texture.

As you read, I want you to keep in mind that I can’t capture even a fraction of her story in such a short article. It would be an overestimation to say that I even scratched the surface of all of her accomplishments. Because of that, I will be focusing on what I think you would be most interested in out of the many topics we discussed and thoughts she shared with me in our interview last November.

And now, Judy Finelli. Enjoy!

She Started Young:

“I saw the Beatles and Elvis Presley, but every week they would have some incredible circus acts from the international circus community.”

When Judy was a young girl, she would watch circus shows on television. These shows were her first exposure to circus arts, and she quickly fell in love with the art through the TV screen.

“I understood what the jugglers were doing as I watched them.” As a circus artist, I can say that is a true gift. She was very talented from a young age, despite not receiving a formal circus education. She even self-taught herself how to juggle when she was only six years old. 

“So it was kind of a secret little thing that I did because back in those days, I’m sure it wasn’t proper for a girl to juggle.” Wow, could you imagine having to juggle secretly at six years old? It makes me grateful that the youth circus movement has sprung up to give us a place to showcase our skills!

Theater School:

“In ’66, I went to theater school, and the first day we supposedly learned to juggle, but I could already do it…. And, it was kind of funny because I liked acting, but I was much more taken with the circus.”

Luckily for Judy, her acting program had a circus component, and, as you can imagine, she took to it quite readily. At that school, she met Hovey Burgess, whom she was married to for a time. Together, they traveled and sought to bring their abstract “New Circus Movement” to life.

Discovering an Undiscovered Artform:

“If you cut away all the junk surrounding Ringling Brothers, all the filler and all the spectacles, and just focused on the good acts and even kind of got rid of the animals, there was something there that was basically an undiscovered art form” Judy firmly believed that there was much more to circus than animals and flashy costumes. This belief prompted her to set out with Hovey Burgess to discover that art form, which later became known as the New Circus Movement. The New Circus Movement became what we now call Contemporary Circus. “Hovey was one of the fathers of the new movement, and I played my part.”

International Inspiration:

Judy and Hovey traveled around the world to see how circus was used and performed in other cultures. These travels greatly influenced and inspired them to develop the New Circus Movement back in America.

She specifically spoke about the incredible circus artists of Russia. “They were very wise; they told folktales. They were very inventive with their use of the circus, and it was like being in another world.” She went on to say, “the artistry that we found was something that we wanted for the United States.” 

Another fascinating vignette that she mentioned about her time in Russia is that the circus itself was used as a force for political change. “If there was a government official whose name was Zelenyy (pronounced ze-len-i), which means green in Russian, and they didn’t like him, they painted a pig green and had him run across the ring.” While this action may seem small and indirect, it would have been considered a daring act of protest in the Soviet Union. Keep in mind that when she visited Russia, it was called the Soviet Union, and there was much less freedom of opinion allowed in those days than there is now.

They also “saw the Chinese acrobatic troupe and a Taiwanese troupe early on.”

Starting Off In America:

“In the beginning, it wasn’t so easy.” At first, they struggled to book events in America. Hiring circus artists to perform at events or functions was a very new concept at that time because many people were used to only seeing the circus when it came to town as part of a touring show, and they were surprised that Judy and Hovey wanted money to show their skills. They eventually decided to form a troupe and performed in Central Park, making money by passing the hat. I found this video online of them performing. Check it out; you’re in for a real treat! https://www.vdb.org/collection/browser-artist-list/circo-dellarte-circus-arts

“Nobody had ever seen circus activities up that close before, and the response was quite positive….. It was for adults, for kids, old people. Everybody seemed to like it.” The nature of their performance was up close and personal, a stark contrast from many shows of the time where the audience was far away from the performers.

Branching Out:

Judy had no idea the New Circus Movement would spread so quickly and grow to be large as it is today. “I never could have predicted that in 2021 there would be this tremendous number of youth circuses, circus schools, informal recreational training sessions, people teaching juggling to corporations… using it to help with depression.”

She went on to say, “It kind of kept branching out and branching out… I think it spread very quickly.”

Thoughts on Clowning:

“I think that people underestimate how difficult it is and how rare it is to be truly funny, and when you see it, it’s great.” You may be surprised to learn that it wasn’t common for girls or women to clown back in the day. I mean, how weird is that!? Judy, being the trailblazer she is, hired female clowns anyway. When I asked her if she was concerned that people would steer clear of her show because of the female clowns, she replied in her typical spunky fashion, saying, “I didn’t care.”

The Future Of Circus? Us:

Judy coaches circus to kids now and loves to watch youth perform tricks, saying, “I don’t get tired of that…just kind of watching their discovery.” She thinks it is “beautiful in its way, and it can transform people; you can see them change.”

Her Message to the Youth:

“Just work hard. And trust your instincts even if they might seem to you wild and crazy or who knows what, because you have to break the rules and that’s how innovations happen. By breaking the rules and understanding – maybe for safety you don’t break rules – but for other things, for ideas you might have, try ’em out. When you’re young, try things out because you never know. And really pay attention to the audience, and the audience will tell you a lot; you’ll get a lot of information from them.”

Furthermore, she says that “It’s all great to watch; it’s all been great to watch what’s happening in circus.”

Throughout this entire article, I never brought up that she was the first female president of the International Jugglers’ Association, co-founded the San Francisco School for Circus Arts, was the artistic director of the Pickle Family Circus, performed on Sesame Street, or any of the countless other accomplishments she has had. I didn’t mention that she now has Multiple Sclerosis and had to sit in a special chair with a voice-activated computer throughout the duration of our Zoom interview. This woman casually talked about how she could pass ten clubs only after I asked her specifically about it and was careful to tell me she never performed ten clubs and had only done it in practice. I didn’t mention all of these things in the body of the article because it was clear from my conversation with Judy that they are not what define her. She isn’t one to brag or ask for favors. If I remember one thing about this interview, I will remember how humble she is.

Thank you, Judy. Thank you for your contributions to the art form that has stolen my heart and those of many other youth. Thank you for being one of the kindest, humblest circus artists I know. It isn’t easy to believe that I didn’t even know that you existed just a year ago, and now I have had the honor of interviewing you. 

When I think of Judy Finelli, I think of her charisma, ingenuity, and grit. I think of someone with a great imagination who wasn’t afraid to use it and changed circus forever. She is a person who has significantly contributed to the progression of circus, a true modern legend. Now let’s return to our original question: What thoughts come to mind when you think of Judy Finelli? Let me know in the comments!

Here are some fantastic internet resources where you can learn more about Judy Finelli or Hovey Burgess if you are interested: