Style Spotlight: Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

There are a number of things that come into consideration when deciding whether or not someone embodies the aesthetics of Carny Style, and as the articles presented here so far have gathered is that these can be clearly defined by a rational guideline.  For me, a large part of this also comes from how one is presented to the public as well as how one acts outside of that realm, because you never know who is watching or what they might see.  It would surprise many to know that it is very easy for a performer to put on a front – after all, a large part of what makes a successful sideshow act is the fine art of bullshit.  However, I have had the pleasure of encountering some genuinely amazing individuals who treated me with nothing but kindness.  Impartial as my opinion can be, I feel confident that others would agree this month’s spotlight is more than deserving of the praise presented here.  They are elevated into my personal collection of Carny Trash Aristocracy and have served as great inspiration for several years, for which I offer my utmost thanks.


My introduction to this extraordinary troupe came in 2004 when I was honored with a position among their volunteer crew that assisted in their Palace of Variety which was located on 42nd Street and had been considered the last vaudeville house in Times Square.  It was not only an incredible opportunity to be a part of this project, but also an intimate experience with some of the nicest people I have ever met.  Their dedication and passion for the arts is something to be admired, and it is certainly not difficult to witness hours of preparation and practice succeeding to entertain audiences with ease.  Presentation is a large part of performance, which is often left to who can do what the best or shout about it the loudest, but I prefer animated words delivered from a character that makes the act interesting.  Throw in a visually stimulating outfit and punctuate the actions with appropriate music, make sure there is ample audience participation and that is what I consider to define a well-rounded production.

They have been together for about sixteen years, performed all across the country and continue to support circus, sideshow and other variety arts in a number of ways.  There are enough people who put on this facade but are motivated by greedier desires which I feel detracts from all of the positive aspects of the community.  It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Bindlestiffs have this position in what could be argued as a fictional hierarchy, but I have seen generosity, sincerity and for a brief moment in my life I truly felt that sense of belonging among people I could relate to.  The lack of judgment and genuine acts of courtesy   speak volumes of their constitution and serves as an example of quality which I feel is important when representing any culture.


One of the main components of this troupe is Keith “Bindlestiff” Nelson, who has two distinct characters on stage.  The first is Mr. Pennygaff, a suave smooth-talking gentleman straight from the hottest vaudeville review with the ability to charm audiences, swallow swords, juggle clubs and even presents an amazing top act.  The cut of his suits are slightly exaggerated, but that is to be expected for such a caricature.  The colors are primary hues that are accentuated with pinstripes or plaids.  A collard shirt and matching tie, coordinating bowler and vest along with two-tone shoes complete the ensemble and it certainly stands out when there is not much else on the stage.  Additionally, such items can be translated into contemporary wardrobes by obtaining well-fitted suits and key pieces that can easily be formed into a variety of looks by simply mixing and matching.  The acts themselves are riveting and can be noted for great dialogue that places humor in just the right places.

Kinko the Clown is a silent character, which means he must find other ways of communicating his story of woe to the audience.  The difference between a hobo and tramp clown lie within their perspective attitudes and variations of costume.  A hobo clown is a ‘devil-may-care’ vagabond content with his life on the road and what few personal possessions he may have.  A tramp clown believes himself to be a victim of circumstance and that this condition is caused by others.  It is safe to say that Kinko falls somewhere in the middle of these, and provides some sort of hope in his saddened smile.  The look of this type of clown is directly inspired by the appearance of homeless migratory workers who road freight trains in search of a temporary job or new adventure.  Even the makeup is inspired by the faces of these travelers, which would be covered by soot from riding coal driven trains – after wiping the soot from the eyes and mouths, they would appear white in contrast.  The main difference in costume is that the tramp’s will appear more tattered and dirtier in comparison to the hobo’s,  but they are both composed out of a suit and tie in dark colors, worn and patched with gloves and a hat.  Kinko wears a rope around his neck, perhaps in lieu of a tie or as an means of expression about the corporate work force.


The other founding member of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is Stephanie Monseu, aka Philomena Bindlestiff.  She makes an excellent ringmistress and emcee, capturing the audiences attention as they are brought into a world of imagination where circus, sideshow and other variety arts surpass imagination.  Her skills include the bull whip, juggling, fire eating, walking on stilts and singing, not to mention a larger-than-life personality and quite a collection of tattoos that I personally feel prevents her from being just another stage prop as is quite common among the females in this business.  Her style is both elegant and classic, not to mention that she makes quite a few of the outfits herself.  From beaded evening gowns and small top hats to corsets, frilly petticoats and heels, every choice is bright, glittering and overall fits her body well, which is also quite important since ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ are only cute when they are part of a burlesque routine.


The other members of this outstanding troupe may change over the years, but each and everyone has their own unique personality and style.  The shows are not strict to adhere to specific genres, but rather utilize acts and to tell a story presented in a variety of formats.  Even budding artists have a platform to showcase talent with a cavalcade that extends the opportunity towards today’s youth.  If circus, sideshow and related arts are to have any sort of future as a certifiable means of employment, then we must learn to respect it and treat it as such.  For me, the Bindlestiff’s have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that this is their lifelong mission, and I can only hope to have a fraction of their success.  Truly they serve as inspiration both on a personal and professional level, but they also set the precedent for the Carny Trash Aristocracy.  After all, it’s perfectly acceptable to be oneself, excel at what you love while keeping in mind where you came from and supporting the future of this culture.

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