A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: A stint in the circus leads to a lifetime in the theater for Liz Bussey Fentress

My friend Liz gardens with gusto and doesn’t mind getting dirty as a result. She is also a beekeeper, a playwright, and a woman who knows her way around a sewing machine. She grew up in northern Wisconsin, youngest of four, in a family that values education and the environment. With scores of nieces and nephews, great and grand, she knits Fair Isle sweaters with ease. An actor and director with impressive credentials in theater, she is the most accomplished of my friends.

On top of all that, she is the only person I have ever known who joined the circus.

She admits being influenced by her best friend from childhood, Paul, who always wanted to be a clown. Years later, when they both were rushing to different destinations on campus at University of Wisconsin at Madison, their paths crossed and Paul announced he was going to work for a circus the next summer.

“Get me a job too,” Liz said, almost as an afterthought.

At that time, she was juggling twenty credits, performing in a play, and working box office at the same time. She had taken on the grueling schedule because she’d just about used up the four years her parents allotted for completion of college. Added to that pressure, the economy was in a recession, and with an undergraduate degree in theater, her professional prospects were dim. So when Paul called to tell her he had actually landed her a job in the circus, she thought it was a joke.

When he explained the offer was serious, she hesitated. Ultimately, however, she joined Franzen Brothers — a brand new, one-ring circus — where she served as ring mistress, organist, and puppet show performer. Her plan was to work the summer and save enough money for graduate school.

What she had not bargained for was the lifelong impact of the circus on her life.

The founder, Wayne Franzen, was making his boyhood dream come true. He’d grown up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, where the circus was not part of his family’s vocabulary. Nevertheless, he saved his money, taught school for a while, then finally got a truck, bought an elephant, and found a good deal on a big top from someone whose circus had gone out of business after just two weeks.

With that, Franzen Bros. was in business. Sort of. Just figuring out exactly how to place the stakes when raising the big top took experimentation. Algebra, finally, led to the solution.

There was lots of trial and error, and Liz’s story is filled with odd ups and downs. “The horses ran away, the goat got electrocuted, we had no days off, and we ate bologna sandwiches all the time,” she remembers.

As she reflects on what she learned, Liz Bussey Fentress explains how dreams that seem impossible can be achieved after all. Wayne Franzen is one example, and Liz is another. Until a tragic accident, he devoted his life to making his dream come true.

Liz has lived a life in the theater, the kind of dream that most parents advise against when their kids are deciding on a major. She never abandoned her goal and found inspiration in Wayne Franzen. She did get to drama school in London, and there were also stints at the Guthrie Theatre, with theater work in New York, Kentucky, and elsewhere around the country. Today, she lives in Louisville where she acts for Stage One Family Theatre, and Bunbury Theatre, and is a teaching artist for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s New Voices Program.

Liz Bussey Fentress tells her story in her one-woman show, “Liz’s Circus Story,” which takes place over 23 years, from 1974 to 1997. KET, Kentucky’s statewide public television network, produced it in 2003, and the KET website contains a video and teachers’ guide to the piece.

For more information, see her website at www.lizfentress.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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