H.I.C.C.U.P. circus – The Wild Ones

Marcellus, Ari and Eli

In 2007 when Ari, Marcellus and Eli brought me on stage to juggle with them at the grand opening of our new Seaview Performing Arts Centre for Education it was a sweet surprise and one of the highlights of my circus career. I have a particularly strong affinity for these three young men. They were members of my very first group of HICCUP students and played a huge part in many of our best accomplishments up to the building of the S.P.A.C.E. facility and beyond.

They were pre-teen lads when my first weekly circus arts classes started in September 1990 as an afterschool activity at Malamalama School. They were such quick learners that I was challenged to keep buying new circus equipment for them to master. First it was stilts followed by juggling balls, clubs and fire torches. Then unicycles and tall unicycles, and then they went on to assorted balancing skills, balloon sculpturing and magic. I have always practised one on one peer teaching methods in my classes and it wasn’t long before Ari, Marcellus and Eli became huge assets as teachers guiding and inspiring younger students to make rapid progress with their own skills.

My regular, twice-weekly drive to classes, for many years, involved starting out at Bellyacres picking up the homeschoolers like Marcellus and his sister Peoni in Seaview, then a couple of kids at Blacksands, a few more at Pahoa High School, one or two at Pahoa Natural Foods then a major load at Malamalama School followed by a growing group from Cindy’s School on 19th Avenue in HPP. By the time I arrived at the class at HPP activity centre the van would be overflowing with equipment and excited kids. On one occasion someone counted twenty eight kids scrambling out of our van. This gave a new look to the old mini-car-clown-gag and it was at that point I decided to get a trailer for carrying our increasing amount of circus toys so the kids didn’t have to pile three high and sit on top of stilts and unicycles. In those pioneering days health and safety guidelines were strictly Hawaiian style.

When HICCUP presented our very first public show it was at a concert in Hilo bandstand presented by the Hawaii County band. Our wild colourful kids brought the audience to their feet and the impressed band leader immediately invited us to participate in a much bigger event at the UHH theatre three weeks later. Having forty three excited young jugglers, unicyclists, stilt walkers and clowns backstage in the islands most prestigious theatre was like herding cats but we pulled it off. Luckily it was the first time our audience had ever seen such young circus performers and no matter how simple it was they applauded every trick and skill the kids presented. Our ‘grand finale’ act for both shows was Elron juggling three balls balanced on a rolla-bolla but from that humble start the HICCUP skill level, led by Ari, Marcellus and Eli, rocketed upwards.  

Eli backed by the Hawaii County Band 1992

My three musketeers joined my fledgling circus at the perfect time. They were fearless, seemingly aware of any limitations and always willing to try the impossible. They earned their stage name ‘The Wild Ones.’ Each year we held a HICCUP residential summer camp and they joined as many as twenty others for a week at Bellyacres. The girls slept together in a large house while I spread the boys out in the smaller cabins spread throughout our jungle site hoping they would stay apart. I was wrong, of course, and the twisting, dark, wood shrouded trails failed to deter the untamed cubs from night time revelries.  A circus intern from Sweden helping at the camp got very confused seeing our kids riding unicycles barefooted since it was a strict rule in his circus world that everyone wear shoes. Our Hawaii kiddos, raised in the jungle and on beaches, hardly ever wore shoes! Some tried it but their general consensus was that they found it harder, in fact most declared it was impossible, for them to ride with shoes! That’s how wild it was growing up in Puna!

Ten balls up

During the camp all the kids enjoyed our trips to a local thermally heated pond and made quite a spectacle for other visitors with our acrobatic games, super high human pyramids and swimming through the legs of a long chain of kids. Back at camp I set up more adrenaline pumping activities like a zip line, water slide, tight ropes in trees, a crate stacking game and of course the trampoline on which Eli broke his ankle. Oooops! When you’re wild fun often involves risks so we were lucky that this was our only injury for nearly thirty years.

In our early days, looking for performance opportunities, I registered our feral talent for the Puna Talent Show held at the Akebono Theatre. It became another milestone event for the HICCUP program with a ‘Wild Ones’ juggling act taking the First Prize award after wowing a virgin audience and judges accustomed to singers and dancers and witnessing kids doing crazy circus stunts for the first time. This success was soon to be repeated over the next few years in additional talent shows held island wide and gained our HICCUP troupe a widespread reputation as outstanding local performers. At an Exchange Club Statewide Talent Show Ari and Marcellus became the Senior Division winners. Along with Eli they also kicked into gear as regular birthday party performers as the ‘Wild Ones,’ of course, and built up a substantial clientele on the Big Island baby Luau circuit. They always got well fed, idolised by the bambinos and loved by the ‘aunties.’ They even made a decent chunk of money too, which is always a huge motivator for teenagers.

Our community circus started receiving a lot of local publicity and quickly became the new novel hot act to add to community festivals,  family reunions and birthday parties. We attended loads of openings and anniversary celebrations for businesses and also started to get invitations to perform and/or teach in libraries and schools which led us to Keaukaha the biggest Hawaiian homelands neighbourhood on the Big island.

Taking our HICCUP program there was cultural pioneering and I was really unsure about how my haole (foreigner) run ‘new circus’ would be received. I discovered everyone felt the same. I met the principal of the school plus a few teachers, the office staff, the groundskeepers, the youth counselors and a few parents. Everyone was super nice and really friendly with us, even enthusiastic at times, but I could tell that there was a lot of skepticism.  No-one could have predicted what happened.  

As a teaser, before the program started, I went with Ari into several classrooms and had him demonstrate the skills we planned to teach.  We were met mostly with blank stares but I knew that each one of them saw Ari and thought if he can do it then so can I. Ari and Marcellus had matured to be two of my teenage ‘star’ students and offered to help me run the classes. With my peer teaching approach in HICCUP most of my students gained some proficiency in the art of teaching other students; Ari and Marcellus were two of the very best and had a great rapport with the Hawaiian youngsters.

The Keaukaha classes are wonderful fond memories for us all. I remember pulling up in the circus van on a Wednesday afternoon and being greeted by gleeful kids running excitedly across the school yard. They scrambled to help unload the van rushing to get going with their favourite piece of equipment. I felt like Santa Claus with each pair of stilts or unicycle that I handed them being a Christmas present they had waited all year to receive. We all had a really enjoyable experience rewarded by the joy and delight expressed by these Hawaiian kids. Whenever they saw us around town or, much later as adults, anywhere on the island they would come up and say aloha and give us a reminder of this very special one-of-a-kind renegade experience. 

As a result of these successes I became much more ambitious, some would say overly ambitious. I decided to produce a theatre show using circus and other physical or artsy skills performed by our talented HICCUP kids. I invited Cynthia Albers, a dancer and parent of one of our students to join me in writing the script for a totally new show. I was keen to move ahead with the HICCUP’s making social statements and being a part of improving our world. After some research I discovered that educating school students about the dangers of smoking tobacco was a cause that badly needed some support.

‘Naturally High’ 1997 troupe

Cynthia and I then wrote a show which we entitled ‘Naturally High’. From conception it had to be financially self supporting and logistically practical to tour on the Big island and beyond. Using the new fifteen seater vans I had recently purchased I figured we could take out the two back sets and use that space for equipment while leaving room for six or seven kids and two adults. This would make for a perfect touring package. ‘Naturally High’ was therefore written for a group of just six performers and our whole set, all our props and personal gear plus a professional sound system had to fit in the van. We had some tight parameters but they actually helped us be creative and courageous.

We wrote the show to fully utilize all the circus and street skills our first six performers possessed. Being able to speak or sing their lines while riding a unicycle, climbing a ladder or juggling hammers was something totally new that we worked hard to develop. The founding group comprised of Ari, Marcellus, Peone, Carla, Colleen and Chris. Colleen could sing like a bird so we decided to include a live song, Ari and Marcellus could pass fire torches from tall unicycles so I chose to make that a finale, Chris was a skateboarder so we added that in the show, Peone was fearless and a great balancer so we got her to climb to the top of a 14’ barely-supported ladder. Carla had attitude so we included lots of that for her and also for every other character. We tried to make them all larger than life and with our wild jungle kids it worked.

About 28 different kids played roles in “Naturally High” during it’s eight year run and as we traded in new performers we always had to modify the physical skills we asked them to do and sometimes had to adapt the choreography or props we used. After three weeks of long, hard rehearsals we presented the first version of the show in August 1995 at the Hilo YWCA. We sent out invitations to all the local politicians, the chief of police, the mayor, and staff from all the grant funding agencies but none of them came. It didn’t matter because a major Hawaiian filming company came and featured it on one of their Sunday prime time slots which aired across the state. Ari, Marcellus and all the kids became TV stars!


We started our run of “Naturally High” shows on the Big Island and as grant funding slowly started coming in I was able to get more adventurous and book shows off island. Travelling logistics were not easy. Working on a super tight budget I needed to ask airlines for sponsorship by way of tickets. Eventually Mahalo Air came through and flew us free for several years until they went bankrupt – not because of us! My next logistical challenge was how to get our van and show equipment to our distant destination island. Luckily Young Brothers Barge Company stepped up and for the duration of our “Naturally High” run of shows they shipped our van – for free! Finally my great friends Bobby D., Sean and Lisa, Michaelle and Marco allowed our crazy circus to camp out at their homes while we toured their respective islands and so we avoided the impossible cost of hotel rooms.

I was very proud of all our kids, on stage and off. Food is always a big issue and on tour we attempted to involve the kids as much as possible and adopted a routine of having a rotation of two kids deciding on a menu, shopping with an adult, preparing the food and then cleaning up. It only worked because our kids had parents who did a good job teaching them independent cooking skills and an appreciation for healthy foods. We also learned how to deal with last minute performance jitters. With Carla refusing to go onstage onetime I persuaded Christine it was the perfect time to make her show debut and asked Peone to switch her role to replace Carla. It worked really well, Peone did brilliantly, and from that time forward our kids, especially Ari, Marcellus and Eli, became experts at playing different roles when we had a cast member sick or otherwise unable to perform. That’s how talented our Puna kids were !

With the help of my new wife Sherri we booked lots more performances of our “Naturally High” show and planned more ambitious tours, not all of which materialised. We never made it to Washington DC. but we did get to California for two weeks. The trip was a huge accomplishment for a small grass roots organisation from a poor rural community. All our off island tours posed challenges but we faced many more obstacles with this particular expedition. I first needed to be sure that we had enough kids able to go on the two week trip. Fortunately Ari, Marcellus and Eli and most of our performers were in alternative education so getting them released from school was easy.

Most groups attempting tours similar to this would fund raise for months and then hit up parents for a sizeable contribution. Knowing the economic struggles of our families I committed to making this a free trip with HICCUP covering all travel, accommodation and food expenses. Despite all my efforts I failed to get any grants so we needed to fund the trip through income from our shows. Our bare bones budget for the trip was $10,500 covering airfares, meals and entertainment while we used my friends donated van and stayed in homes of family and friends. Income from the twenty school shows we booked was still not enough so we gambled on doing a bit of busking and party entertaining on the weekends. Incredibly it all worked and the Cali tour became a great reward for our performers who had worked really, really hard for years to keep this great innovative show on the road. They were all real stars!

“Naturally High” was eventually presented in a total of 138 schools reaching over 50,000 students. Considering all the potential logistical problems everything had gone relatively smoothly and even though a few teachers had concerns about our fire juggling we never burned down a single school!

‘Naturally High’ in California

I learned a huge lesson about how talented our HICCUP kids really were when I attended the first American Youth Circus Organization festival in 2001 in Florida. Being isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean had meant that our HICCUP circus had developed without and guidance or input from other youth circus directors. The AYCO festival hosted groups from Washington State to New Hampshire, from California to New York, and from Vermont to Florida and it was a fabulous experience for me to meet fellow practitioners. A particular highlight for me was a roundtable meeting of youth circus directors where they each described what they thought was the best style of youth circus performance. Everyone chose either ‘themed’ or ‘narrated’ or ‘MC’d’ and each director made a point to say that ‘theatrical presentations’ with young performers acting with lines plus performing circus acts, dancing and singing was IMPOSSIBLE !

Suddenly I realised that what I had been asking my young Hawaii students to do, in my naivety, was considered IMPOSSIBLE by the experts. The fact that my gang of wild island kids had done it so successfully proved their caliber and excellence. My circus education world was forever changed.

Ari at the opening of S.P.A.C.E.

At the opening celebration for our new home for the HICCUP circus (S.P.A.C.E.) I was extremely proud and overjoyed at our achievement. In my celebratory speech I took lots of time attempting to honour each of the many people who made it all possible and I was especially happy that Ari had agreed to be the headline act for this show. In my opinion none of what we had accomplished would have been the same without the contributions made by the ‘Wild Ones’ who grew up in the circus and shared so many fun experiences.

It always made me very happy to see my HICCUP kids participate in the amazing Vaudeville Juggling Festivals we organised. While many of our international visiting performers opened themselves to supporting kids like Ari, Marcellus and Eli I was disappointed by my Bellyacres members. One of my biggest community regrets was how we lost the opportunity to have any of my HICCUP kids participate in our sustainable living experiment. Ari, Eli, and Marcellus had contributed so much since first joining when they were just 8 or 9 years old. They trained hard themselves, taught others, and represented our circus school program, as they performed in hundreds of shows. Bellyacres benefited from each of them in many ways that my fellow members never fully understood or chose to ignore.

Imu pit feast thanks to Ari and Eli

These guys were the backbone of the founding generation of kids that brought Bellyacres credibility in our local community, as well as recognition from politicians and community leaders throughout the state. Marcellus would often caretake Bellyacres while I was away on a summer trip and Ari and Eli organised our imu pit feasts whenever we had major celebrations. While over time the trio gained the respect of our membership as jugglers, they were never embraced as the new generation of members and were never offered the prospect of membership. Despite my continuous advocacy efforts on their behalf, whenever I raised the subject, I was immediately shot down. It was a tremendous loss for Bellyacres that will likely never be realised by our aging resident membership group.

Volleyclub is a particularly unique juggling sport which  originated at one of our early Hawaiian Vaudeville Festivals. During our 25th Anniversary match, at Spencers Beach Park, the spectators held their breath and lined up for the final match. On one side of the network were the old champions from the early years, Haggis McCleod and John Slump while on the other side were Elron  and Ari, spirited and lively young bucks. As recent newcomers to the international street performing scene they faced their idols and mentors. In a vigorous game with around 100 spectators the tension was high and the game was played hard. It was close encounter but the trophy was awarded to the new generation of ‘wild ones’ together with everyones best wishes for the next 25 years.

Eli busking in Europe

Each one moved on with their lives, Ari and Eli travelled to Europe to explore the world of busking while Marcellus took up fishing and did most of the electrical installation work at S.P.A.C.E.. They have all continued to share their skills and inspire the next generation of HICCUP kids. At several of our circus camps Eli and Ari joined our team of instructors and it was a sheer joy to have my HICCUP alumni back. In 2013 when we performed again in Hilo’s Palace Theatre  featuring our  “Royal Performance” our current students plus Ari and Eli brought their circus magic to a brand new Palace stage for two sold out shows. 

All three boys now own property in Kalapana, not far from Bellyacres, and are developing their own homesteads. Eli goes back and forth between Europe and Hawaii and I get to see him and his family, Marcellus is firmly rooted in Puna while Ari recently moved to Alaska. They are now family men raising children of their own and I’m left to wonder if their kids will turn into the kind of wild renegades that Ari, Marcellus and Eli were in their youth.


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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “H.I.C.C.U.P. circus – The Wild Ones

  1. Lower Puna in thise days was very rural with many poor families. In the early 90’s the community didn’t even have electricity. Children were starving for stimulation. There was no SPACE and Graham would load up and shelp a ton of equipment a few times a week.Marcellus, Ari and Eli were little boys when they started and to see them juggle, unicycle and pass clubs was so entertaining They were always there helping, teaching and performing. It was fantastic to see them develop over the years.
    Aside from the star performers there were dozens of kids all eager to participate. Watching so many kids develop skills and confidence was so inspiring. A few large community shows were produced with dozens of kids, imagine styrofoam dolfins were strapped to 20 or more unicycles and all these kids riding around to the community’s delight.
    Some of H.I.C.C.U.P. kids went on to become professional circus performers for shows all around the world. Others used the confidence to become successful in many areas.
    I am happy to report the circus is alive and well continuing to inspire and entertain.

    Liked by 2 people

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