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Naperville woman celebrates 30 years working with The Greatest Show on Earth

Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media
For past 30 years Bonni Pear has been doing  public relations for Ringling Bros when

Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media For the past 30 years Bonni Pear has been doing public relations for Ringling Bros when the circus comes through Chicago. On Thursday evening she brought a group of kids frm Aurora's Gigi's Playhouse, along with their family's to the circus free of charge. Here she is holding 13 month old Veronica Keigher.

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Updated: December 14, 2012 6:07AM

Little Pete Litow of Aurora was so excited Thursday night that he tried to open the big, glass interior doors to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont all by himself. After all, this would be the 3-year-old’s first time at a circus, and it included a chance to see two elephants up very close and personal.

During the pre-show prior to the main event, AJ Swords, 14, of Aurora, headed to a ring filled with clowns and other acts. He wound up joining the action that included learning a move or two from martial arts monks and doing a dragon dance.

The two boys and their families were at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spectacular with 42 other people from GiGi’s Playhouse Fox Valley, the Down syndrome awareness and educational center in Aurora, as guests of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

“This means a lot to us. It’s great to have the opportunity to spend time like this with families on the same path we are,” said AJ’s dad, Scott.

Overseeing the GiGi’s Playhouse visit was Bonni Pear of Naperville, who, in turn, was happy to see how much fun the families were having.

Pear heads Miller-Pear Public Relations in Chicago, and for 30 years she has been the modern equivalent of a circus barker, handling publicity for The Greatest Show on Earth on its annual fall visit to the area.

“To be able to say that we’ve not only been in business for 30 years, but have retained a client like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey over that entire period, is something of which I’m very proud,” Pear said.

Meeting legends

Pear went to work for her former business partner, Trisha Miller (Trisha Miller Communications), right out of grad school at Northwestern. Feld Entertainment, producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, was one of Miller’s clients.

“My first circus was at the Metro Center in Rockford,” Pear recalled. “I was just off the hippodrome track — a rubber mat that circles the arena floor — when legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams came out through the curtain, straddling a tiger, standing atop an elephant. My jaw literally dropped. I didn’t even know enough, at that point, to understand what an amazing feat it was to get a tiger and elephant to cooperate together in that way. I just knew that he was — and remains to this day — the most charismatic person I’d ever encountered.”

Along with her experiences with Gebel-Williams, Pear noted other highlights of the job have included working with legendary clowns Lou Jacobs, Duane Thorpe and Bello Nock; watching 16-year-old Miguel Vazquez complete the quadruple somersault on the flying trapeze; explaining to friends that the slashes in the upholstery of her car came courtesy of bear cubs; and getting butted by a unicorn.

“Time after time, I’ve seen circus performers do the unthinkable, and then improve upon it,” she said. “The Torres family came to Chicago two years ago and wowed audiences with seven motorcycles orbiting, within inches of each other, inside a 16-foot steel globe. This year, they returned with a record-setting eight motorcycles, orbiting at an unprecedented 65 miles per hour.”

One of the things Pear loves about Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is that the more it changes, the more it remains the same. At the same time, Pear noted, “The production values have become much more sophisticated over the years, the lighting and special effects are state-of-the-art, and the music is more contemporary. Within the past decade, the Felds have engaged children even more fully in each new production by adding loose story lines, and they’ve broken free from the traditional three rings to create alternate formats for showcasing even the largest of acts.”

Getting creative

Still, Pear said the core elements of any production are the same as they’ve been for 142 years: elephants, big cats, horses, clowns, trapeze and teeterboard artists, acrobats, aerialists, daredevils and the ringmaster.

“Every Ringling Bros. circus — past, present and future — is, at its heart, a celebration of astounding accomplishments that lift the human spirit and create indelible memories,” Pear said.

To publicize the show, Pear said she has to be a lot more creative these days.

“In the ’80s, every network-affiliate TV news operation had a full-time feature reporter, and at least one magazine-format show. The newspapers had a staff of entertainment writers, and they were all looking for material. If I sent a clown to teach a few elementary school children to juggle, chances were a camera or two would show up. Now, I need to create a giant, 30-foot square Chinese Checkers board, place it on a high-traffic downtown plaza, and have human game-pegs competing to win circus tickets for their favorite children’s charities, to get noticed,” she said.

Pear added, “On the flip side, there’s a full range of social media today that didn’t exist even a decade ago, bringing with it new channels for reaching prospective circus fans.”

What Pear enjoys about working with the circus “is knowing, especially in difficult economic times, that if a mom reads a story I’ve placed and decides to take her family to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, she’s not going to be disappointed. Her family is going to experience an incredible entertainment value. And that family is going to connect in ways they probably don’t in their day-to-day lives.”

Pear said she took her own 13-year-old daughter to the current incarnation of the circus, “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents DRAGONS,” which moves to the United Center in Chicago for performances from Wednesday through Nov. 25.

“We laughed, and gasped, and shared private asides, and she didn’t send a single text the entire time,” Pear said.

Two of Pear’s personal favorites are new to this version: the Shaolin Warriors from China, who use powerful concentration, rapid movements and sheer strength to twist 8-foot-long metal rods, break solid oak poles in one precise strike, or to be lifted into the air on the points of five hand-held spears; and Alexander Lacey’s big cats.

“Lacey, a dynamic performer who has won most of the circus world’s most prestigious honors, including Best of the Best at the Circus Festival in Monte Carlo, is one of only four animal handlers in the world to present tigers and lions in the same act,” Pear said.

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