By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
Thousands of area residents have fond memories of the annual Shrine Circus performance at the Bell County Expo Center, but this year's show is all new, circus organizer David Buckles said.
"I believe we're very lucky to have these performers and this program," said Buckles, chief rabban of Waco's Karem Shrine. "They come highly recommended."
The George Cardon Circus is based out of Springfield, Mo. It is contracted to perform in Belton as the Shrine Circus.
The show travels with about 160 people to as many as 95 cities each year. It features one of the world's only female ringmasters, El Paso native Audrey Michelle.
"My favorite part is when I'm out there in the ring and can hear the applause and see that people are enjoying the performance," she said in a telephone interview from the road this week. "That's why we're out there."
The show features traditional elements such as elephants, tigers and aerialists, she said, in addition to newer acts such as an incline wire-riding BMX biker.
Face painting and elephant rides also will be available, she said.
The show begins this evening, with Military Appreciation Night. Four additional performances are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. The Copperas Cove Shrine Club president, retired Sgt. Maj. Marty Rodriguez, is also Karem Shrine's military ambassador. Tonight's performance will feature Brig. Gen. Peter Atkinson, III Corps' Canadian deputy commander, in Scottish regalia, he said, as he carries out his duties as the circus' grand marshal.
"(It's) specifically geared toward saying 'thank you' to the active duty and Reserve/National Guard military personnel," he said.
Proceeds from the circus will help local Shriners continue their philanthropic efforts, Rodriguez said.
"If there's a child with a medical need, we are able to nominate that child for medical care," he said. "Our motto has always been, 'Having fun, helping kids.'"
There are 22 Shriner hospitals in the United States and Canada. Two are located in Texas, in Houston and Galveston.
"We call the Shriner Hospital the world's greatest philanthropy," he said.
The circus could raise as much as $40,000 for Karem Shrine, he said.
The quality of this year's circus should help it reach that goal, circus spokesperson Amanda Tackett said.
Many of the performers train and live like elite athletes, she said, and take care of their animals like members of their own families.
Tiger trainer Bruno Blaszak is an internationally respected Bengal cat expert, she said, and personally raises his tigers from tiny cubs. Because elephants develop deep emotional bonds with their trainers, she said, the show's elephants live on trainer Habib Omar's property during the show's off-season.
But that isn't very often. The circus is on the road 48 weeks each year, and travel is in most performers' blood, she said.
"Of the people that are in the circus, 75 percent are multigenerational," Tackett said. "Some can trace their families back three generations."
Tonight's performance begins at 7:30. Additional performances are scheduled for 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Pre-parties begin one hour prior to each performance.
Tickets cost $16 for adults and $12 for children, or $7 with a military discount. Kids age 2 and younger get in free.
For more information and for a "buy one, get one free" coupon, go to beltoncircus.com.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.