HICCUP circus shows – pre 1996

I woke up one day in 1990 not realising that my love of juggling had morphed itself into a social circus experiment.  Incredulously I told people my vision was to help raise healthy kids and contribute to community by playing around with some fun circus props.  I never imagined it would lead to HICCUP becoming renown throughout the Hawaii islands and the emerging youth circus world.  I also had no idea how effective circus arts could be in helping bring together a community that was slowly growing in my adopted home of Puna, Hawaii. It was all unknown territory.

First summer camp 1991

Between 1990 and 2014 I brought together a solid team and organised circus classes, summer camps, workshops, parades and performances of all sizes on six Hawaiian islands.  Our circus kids were regularly featured in statewide newspapers,  magazines, and even on TV.  We presented well over two hundred school shows statewide and attended dozens and dozens of festivals, fundraisers and community events with audiences large and small from a diversity of cultures. 

During our first performance tour to a few libraries we sufficiently impressed folks to get invited back. HICCUP later performed “Dr Seuss in words and actions”  at every library on the Big Island. We followed that with “Naturally High” and “Lifecycle” two highly ambitious scripted shows which we presented to many thousands of school students across all the Hawaiian islands and even in California. Several of our young stars became regular birthday party and baby luau entertainers. A few went on to become professional circus performers or itinerant international buskers. Hundreds of parents, family and friends participated with us in parades in Pahoa and other towns while many thousands of residents and visitors enjoyed our performances. Running away with the circus became possible.

After many years travelling throughout the islands we decided, from 2002, to focus on our home Island presenting our Monkeys, Forest Spirits, Aina and Ecotopia shows which were featured in local theatres, community festivals, schools, street fairs and farmers markets.

Culminating every winter and summer circus camp the HICCUP’s presented shows for family and friends in which hundreds of young people got to perform on stage, many for the very first time. Our collaboration with other local artists eventually created  Malama i Ke Kai and Malama ka Aina, our masterpiece community productions, each featuring well over 120 performers and support team members.


At Malamalama school at the end of the 1991 school year I put together my first ever children’s circus show for parents and the general school body. It involved the simple story of a wicked witch who was eventually contained and controlled by our circus stars.  In reality it concluded with a playful parent getting tied to the centre pole of the tarp tent in which we performed. For every kid present it was their first circus show. but not their last. Many of them went on to perform in scores more and a few are still entertainers today.

Our first public show was in the Hilo Bandstand accompanied by the Hawaii County band. I recruited the theatre skills and experience of my friend Don Moody to direct the show. He doubled as Yikes the clown and was remarkable herding my unruly newbies. Our presentation made a good impression because the band leader invited us to participate in a much bigger event at the prestigious university theatre three weeks later. 

Don directed this show too and managed our single rehearsal. It was organised chaos with forty three novice jugglers, tottering unicyclists, stumbling stilt walkers and clumsy clowns. On show day the kids were bubbling with excitement in the plush professional dressing rooms recreating themselves with clown make up and costuming.  Our ragamuffin stars rose to the occasion as they always do. The whole show was a great success and transformational for the HICCUPs. 

I remember addressing the troupe before the show telling them assuredly not to be nervous. Meanwhile, I was totally petrified of setting foot on that huge intimidating stage, and literally started shaking when introducing the group from centre front in the solo spotlight!  I nearly died, I was wobbly at the knees and sweating like a horse. If the kids had known exactly how nervous I was they would have split their sides laughing. Oh, the lessons we all were learning! Our fledgling HICCUP program performed it’s second ever public show at the most prestigious theatre on the island and were enthusiastically greeted with claps and cheers from an astonished audience. We were on a roll.

In 1992 a national touring circus came to Hilo and I got the HICCUP’s recruited as the pre-show act for their ten day run. It was the first time ever inside a real circus bigtop tent for most of our crew and they were in the hallowed centre ring. We did a comedy clown boxing act plus a bit of club juggling and diabolo twirling. It was such a blast!

By 1993 our circus classes were really rolling in four venues and I was actively seeking more exciting gigs for our kids when I saw a request to send proposals for First Night in Honolulu. On a whim I called the director and she turned out to be a proper English lady which gave me an instant hook and I talked her ear off telling her about our amazing kids. Young people learning circus arts is very common today but back then it was unheard of and our program was the only one in the State of Hawaii. My proposal was accepted and so I had some serious logistics to think through. Having not yet discovered the complexities of travelling inter-island with a large group of kids I unwittingly committed to having twenty-two performers in our troupe. The organizers agreed to provide us with air transport,  five hotel rooms and a very small perdium. Coming from Puna, any amount of money seemed like a lot to me, so I agreed without realizing what it actually costs to transport and accommodate a group like this for the two night/three day trip. First Night on Oahu became another first for me in attempting the impossible.

I discovered the sometimes delicate communications required for families to allow their kids to ‘run away with the circus’ for an off island adventure. For the first time I had to craft parental release forms and emergency medical forms and lists of what to bring, times of travel and contact information and all the other administrative details involved in such an expedition. It was a huge learning curve for mean for the adult chaperone’s I found to accompany us on the magical mystery tour. I was striding ahead and everyone else just trusted that we could figure it all out as we went along. Thank heavens for the positive thinking that got the HICCUP’s to Oahu and launched our touring days.

First Night Oahu 1993

Using a motley assortment of kitbags, plastic boxes and suitcases I spent a considerable amount of energy figuring out, for the very first time, how to pack up our unicycles, stilts, rolling globe and piles of juggling gear so that it would be accepted as check in luggage on our flight. Luckily those were the days when airlines accepted odd shaped baggage weighing up to 100 pounds without flinching or demanding an arm and a leg in excess charges.  The way we flew with all our circus props is totally impossible to do today!

Next, I had to figure out how to transport a van load of baggage and pick up a van load of kids and arrive on time at the airport so everyone and everything made the flight. I still don’t remember how but we all made it! My parents, who were visiting at the time, saw me finally utilise my Business Studies degree. Very surprisingly their hard work supporting me through college years was now bearing fruit, not for a business career, but to build a circus school !!!!     

First Night in Oahu was a huge leap for the HICCUP’s. For most of our island kids it was their first time flying, the first time staying in a fancy hotel, the first time riding an elevator, the first time going ice skating and definitely the first time being featured on television.  From this time onwards riding the elevators at Ala Moana shopping center, until the security guards chased us off, and ice skating at the nearby Ice Palace became HICCUP rituals every time we visited Oahu. Other touring rituals later included ten pin bowling, hikes up Diamond Head Crater, Haleakula Crater, Waimea Canyon State Park and beach surfing on MacDonald’s plastic trays.

Appearing on television, however, only occurred once in a while. We were blown-away when the very popular Hawaiian Moving Company decided to interview us, record our show and featured HICCUP as the new hot activity for young people in Hawaii. They made a big deal of the fact that our unique and innovative program was only available on the Big Island telling viewers they would have to run away to rural Puna if they wanted to participate in circus fun. We all loved hearing that message. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIFr2tzYExo or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PirXqob9aIA

Celebrating New Years 1993 in Honolulu was a milestone event for our HICCUP program and led to many more great adventures. We were invited to attend the Maui First Night the following year which involved another big parade, an opening show before the band HAPA and another stay in a fancy hotel.

It was in 1994 that we began a further HICCUP tradition that lasted until 2018.  Almost every year a contingent of HICCUP performers have been hosted on Kauai island by Uncle Mark Jeffers. Being the sharp public relations man that he is, Mark quickly realised the media potential of our unique troupe. He had us appearing regularly on local radio and cable TV shows and we always made for good newspaper photo’s whenever we appeared.

On Kauai

We loved our trips to Mark’s garden isle where he somehow accommodated us at the esteemed Waimea Plantation Cottages resort and we lived like celebrities. He transported us around the island to schools, summer programs, festivals, parades and his own first night event in rural Hanapepe. He was a generous host and a wonderful tour guide taking us to his favourite places, secret beaches, mountain vistas and forest trails. He got to know many generations of HICCUP kids and we got the honour of exploring his Storybook theatre world. We were all blessed.

By 1996 our boldly painted circus van and trailer had become well known not only in Puna and Hilo but all around the Big island. HICCUP activities were viewed everywhere as new and novel. Hawaii residents had never seen kids doing stunts like these before and the invitations to attend events increased continuously. Touring became a regular feature of HICCUP life as our circus regularly took to the road, the sea, and the air. Our classes were held in more and more locations and we attended community events from Kapa’au to Na’alehu on the Big Island and from Hana to Hanalei throughout the chain of islands.

For a few years members of our performing group participated in the popular talent shows presented by different civic organisations. They honed their various circus acts and presented them alongside singers and hip hop dancers,  ukulele players, hula dancers and magicians and did extremely well. 

Apparently, the judges recognised the amount of skill our HICCUP students had developed and were sufficiently impressed to award them trophy after trophy. It began with the 1992 Puna Talent Show held at the Akebono Theatre where Ari and Chris Volz wowed the audience and the judges and walked away with the first prize award. Ari, Marcellus and Jason later became 1994 State Champions and the 1995 Group winners in the Lehua Jaycees Search for Talent plus the 1995 and the 1996 Big Island winners of the Exchange Club Search for Talent event.

Sasha, one of our young superstars, was another winner but was robbed of the State award in 1996 when the competition venue had such a low ceiling he wasn’t able to perform his finale trick – the three club fire torch on a six foot unicycle – and he lost to a yodeling kid  in a cowboy hat whom he had already beaten in the semi finals.  

The more we traveled the more people knew about HICCUP not only around Hawaii Island but eventually throughout the state.  Our story was colourful and refreshing and was soon featured in most of Hawaii’s newspapers and magazines as well as on TV news reports and shows. Week by week I accumulated a mass of testimonial letters from politicians, government officials, business managers, school principals, community leaders, teachers, and parents. They eventually multiplied to fill a whole filing cabinet drawer in my office. The HICCUP circus had arrived and was destined for many more exciting accomplishments.

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 !

3 thoughts on “HICCUP circus shows – pre 1996

  1. What a blast from the past. It is incredible how a pebble dropped in the pond sent ripples far and wide. I taught the original Juggling for Success program to about 50 students who modeled and revised and reconfigured it all over the planet, helping create a world-wide movement. I assume it is still going strong somewhere even though I’ve stepped aside. Now with my new adventure http://greenactioneers.com I hope that the same organic replication happens and we can turn an idea into a movement once again!

    Liked by 2 people

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