MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The show has ended, and fans make their way to the front of the stage at the Minnesota State Fair’s Baldwin Park on a sticky August afternoon. Several people just want a moment with the mandolin-playing, fire-juggling, unicycle-riding, wise-cracking guy they just watched for the past half hour.
A smirking middle-aged woman walks past me after stealing a quick hug from the performer.
“I got Sean Emery sweat all over me!” she said.
Sean Emery has been a Minnesota State Fair institution since 1991, making him perhaps the longest-running performer at “The Great Minnesota Get-Together.” For a little perspective, Sweet Martha’s cookies only precede him by six years or so.
I fondly remember seeing Emery in his first year at the fair when I was a boy. There was something about this juggler, and it wasn’t necessarily the juggling, or the juggling while precariously balancing on a board atop a big rolling pin, or the juggling of flaming torches while riding a unicycle. What really got me was his crowd work, a term I was not familiar with as a 10 year old. The guy was just really funny on top of it all.
Emery was about 33 that summer. He is now 57, and his brand of clowning has not been easy on the body.
“I do take time off now because I have to to recover physically after a summer of fairs,” Emery said. “I will train in the offseason, and now training requires more just working on parts, doing some P90, keeping my body so that I can go out there and do a hardcore half hour, bam-bam-bam-bam, and at least just wear them down, you know, boom-boom-boom! Because I don’t think people expect a lot at fairs.”
Emery performs year-round at state fairs across the United States, as well as at corporate events and other one-off gigs. But he says there is something about the Minnesota crowds.
“It’s the only place that I play where people come over and over,” he said. “I become a tradition to people. I’m sort of like the mini donut, that I’m on their list and they’re going to come out of a sense of duty to see me, and see me get a year older.”
No matter where he performs, he always comes back to Minnesota, where he has lived for decades with his Mendota Heights-native wife. But Emery was born in Northern Ireland to an Irish mother and an American sailor father. His family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina when he was a boy.
“My dad was in the Navy, so we’d go the Navy bases and watch the … family-based shows, you know, and I didn’t care for the jokes. I mean, I liked the comedians, but they just stood there … but they’d always have a hand balancer come out, a unicycle act, a juggler,” he said. “I was drawn to that, but I noticed that’s when everyone else got up to go pee, go fill their beers, and I realized I’m drawn to this but a lot of people aren’t. And I would go home and think about what that guy’s life was like, you know. He’s doing a handstand with one finger in a bottle!”
As dazzled as he was at a young age, performing was not initially Emery’s thing, but he had an admiration for his theatrical peers.
“Because I was a red-headed kid who was the kid who moved into town with a Navy family … football sort of set my thing. I was an all-county player and a team captain,” he said. “I used to sit there [at school plays] and go, ‘Those are the bravest kids I know.’ They’re … not hiding under a helmet or hitting anybody.”
Emery went to college to study commercial art, but he soon found that he did not have the passion required for the job. He instead felt more and more of the big top’s invisible pull.
“The circus appealed to me … because the physicality. And I think all those memories, all those emotions watching these acts as a kid surfaced. I taught myself to juggle because I was a bad math student in high school, so it was already starting to show. And I had a unicycle because my dad got me one in the eighth grade, so I started bringing these elements in,” Emery said.
He submitted his application to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1979 without much hope of getting in, but he became one of the select few.
“I got in, and then out of the 60 of you that are chosen, maybe about 12 get chosen to go in the show.”
There was definitely pushback from his family, especially his Irish Catholic mother who would have loved to see him join the priesthood.
“No one supported me,” Emery said. “But once we came back and played with Ringling Bros. in my home town, they had front row seats and [my Mom] saw that I wasn’t borrowing money from her, that I was making a living and I was a part of a big thing — it changed everything.”
It was during his three-year tenure with Ringling Bros. that he met his future wife, aerial performer Meg Elias-Emery — founder and artistic director of Xelias Aerial Arts Studio in northeast Minneapolis. The pair eventually left the circus to hone their individual crafts on the streets and stages of New York City before taking to the high seas to make a living on cruise ships.
The couple have one daughter, Aerial, who has taken to the family business with zeal. She is a graduate of L’Ecole de Cirque de Quebec, and now performs with Chicago’s Midnight Circus.
“She told me, ‘Dad, I’ve never seen you hate your job.’ She said, ‘I’ve seen you hate certain gigs, and at times I’ve seen you hate people.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but never humanity. I’ve always loved humanity,'” Emery said.
After decades in the business, and three decades in particular at the Minnesota State Fair, Emery keeps on keeping on, despite the occasional taunts from his subconscious.
“I feel every year I’ve got to come out and deliver at this energy level, being 57, because I have this nightmare, I get it about five times a year. I just finish the show at that stage out there … I’m standing there [on] the lip of the stage getting ready to go down and talk to everybody. Nobody’s coming up to talk to me, and a little lady comes up, looks up at me like, ‘You may want to think about hanging it up!’ And [she] walks away,” he said. “So I can’t ever buy into when people go, ‘Oh, I’ll watch you do anything.’ You know, you can’t believe it.”
It is the special connection he was made with fairgoers over the years that keep Emery, and his fans, coming back for more.
“People don’t go out of their way to see a juggler. They happen upon us. But if they go, and I think Minnesotans would come and see me and go, ‘You know, actually that was pretty good.’ If you pay attention to your audience, let them know that you’re paying attention to them, they will watch you over and over, and they will put you on their list of things to do,” Emery said. “Because I have people, they’ll come up to me [and say], ‘This is our 18th year of coming to see you here.’ Kids come and tell me, ‘This is my 12th year,’ you know. So, yeah, jugglers don’t get that a lot.”
Sean Emery performs at 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily at the Minnesota State Fair’s Family Fair at Baldwin Park.