Bill Kartoum (Leo Verswijvel), the oldest circus director in Europe, passed away on November 5, 2016. Normally he would have turned 88 on November 13. In August of the same year, he gave his last show. After a fall at home during the demolition of a hangar, he was admitted to hospital in Wilrijk shortly after his last performance with a blood clot. He died three days after the great Oleg Popov, the world famous Russian clown.
Live cannonball, lion tamer, spaghetti western actor, nightclub performer: Bill Kartoum was unbearable. He did it all. In the Beirut casino he had to whip the women’s clothes with a whip. Yet many Flemish only got to know him when he appeared as a knife thrower in De Laatste Show, where he only missed his much younger Italian wife Patrizia Lotti by a hair.
“I never met him personally,” says Limburger Dimitri Nollet (36) from Halen. “But I am professionally in the entertainment sector, I perform as a clown and I have a great fascination for circus. The figure of Bill Kartoum captivated me. I started reading all about him and became more and more aware of what a circus legend he was. Because I had toured around with a program myself, I went to visit widow Patrizia in Kontich. After long negotiations – I had to convince her of my good intentions – I was able to take over the tent of the Magic Circus, to continue Bill’s life’s work. They had no children of their own, so there is no next generation.”
That tent is a different story. Bill and Patrizia Kartoum’s Magic Circus toured with an igloo tent for years. At one point their tent was blown away on the coast in a storm. Bill had a lot of trouble getting his expenses reimbursed by the insurance companies. While everyone thought he was going to retire, at the age of 87 he bought a beautiful new tent, with stars. Bill Kartoum could only draft them six times.
“It is a very intimate tent of fifteen by thirteen metres,” says Dimitri. “Our show is conceived as a tribute. The portrait of Bill Kartoum hangs in the center. We recorded Bill’s voice through a voice impersonator, addressing the audience from heaven at the opening. After the first act, he says that he is at peace with it and appoints the clown as the new circus director. So that’s me. It is then up to the clown to look for other artists. That goes with a look back at songs Bill and Patrizia Kartoum did. This is how we bring the gun number in a comical way, without a real gun. We also do the famous illusion where Bill sawed Patrizia in two in a coffin, but we saw a girl in four. We also have a fakir with knives, as a tribute.”
“The New Magic Circus has a modern, fresh breeze. Bill put on another turntable, so to speak, when he started playing music. Now it’s all digital.”
Parrots and pigeons
The poster shows a trained goose and other animals. Also nice, because animal lover Patrizia had a song with cats and tame pigeons. “That’s right, but we will probably only bring a chicken and cat number. When we started, the bird flu broke out, and we were no longer allowed to take the goose. We also had a number with parrots and pigeons, but the regulations on housing are very strict. I should actually go on tour with a large aviary.”
Patrizia Lotti (65), Bill Kartoum’s widow, still lives in Kontich. She has already come to see three performances. “Her approval is important to us,” says Dimitri. “So far we have only performed with the New Magic Circus in Limburg and the sides of Scherpenheuvel and Averbode. Now come to Antwerp for the first time. On October 7, 8 and 9 we will be in Rijkevorsel, on October 14, 15 and 16 at Sint-Teunisplein in Sint-Antonius (Zoersel). Then we return to Lommel.”
When we call Patrizia Lotti in Kontich, it turns out that she still trains pigeons every day, just like her cats. She also has two domestic ducks and English chickens. In March she fell from a height of five meters from an elevator. Her foot needed surgery. “There is an iron plate in it,” she says.
Would she not like to perform in the New Magic Circus herself? “I can’t stand up that long. My recovery is still underway. I would love to perform in retirement homes again, like I used to with Bill.” She agrees that the New Magic Circus is a tribute to Bill. “But of course it’s different. Bill and I were real circus performers. The New Magic Circus started in a difficult period, in the heat wave. I also said that they should not just distribute flyers but put up more posters, like we did.” You don’t have to get to know Patrizia how the whip works. “Bill was a born artist, but a very stubborn person, a real scorpion. I just couldn’t keep the tent, because I can’t get it set up. Still, I would like to pay a few tributes to Bill every year on the grounds here in Kontich itself.”