RIVERVIEW — Ivene Staunko was the first person who ever explained to me the exact difference between a carnival and a circus. You’d think growing up amidst the amusement park life of the Asbury Park, NJ, boardwalk I’d know, but I didn’t fully understand it.
“A carnival has rides and games and food,” she told me. “A carnival is always on the road. A circus has performers and can stay in one place or travel.” Since many traveling circuses do have some carnival rides as well, I had never quite been able to see the difference.
Over her lifetime in the business — which she finally quit at 90 years old — Ivene has been in both circus and carnival life.
And now, at 95, she doesn’t miss a beat when she’s recalling her memories. Her family says she should write a book. Ivene’s bright eyes and swift smile could have captured me for hours had I only been able to stay.
“She’s as spry as ever,” said Kathie Demme, whose son Jeff is married to Ivene’s daughter Kathy. “All she wanted to do for Mother’s Day was see Water for Elephants.” I haven’t yet seen the movie but I did watch the trailer on YouTube and saw that it was about 1930s circus life and had an elephant in it named Rosie.
Rosie was the name of the elephant Ivene worked with when she was still just a teenager.
From the time she was a baby, Ivene traveled on circus trains with her parents, who she said were not performers, but vendors.
Schooled on the road until she was 10, her parents then insisted she attend The Holy Family Academy in Chicago and that she get good grades before she could continue her dream as a performer.
The whole time she was at school, she practiced gymnast exercises given to her by the Four-and-a-Half Arleys, which at that time, was a famous circus act.
“Finally,” she said, “I got to return to circus life and perform.”
She graduated June 10, 1934, and that very day was on the train heading straight to the Chicago Theater to work as an apprentice.
She worked her way into high wire acts and elephant stunts and all kinds of things that require thousands of hours of practice and a flexibility of body and mind I can’t even imagine.
The day I interviewed her, her daughter Kathy Demme (same name as her mother-in-law with a different spelling) was present. Ivene’s other daughter, Judy, who also lives in the Bay Area, could not be present.
Kathy and Kathie told me a lot about Ivene. But Ivene’s stories were what captivated everyone in the room.
The mother of three daughters and two sons, Ivene also has nine grandchildren and 13 “greats.”
Born in Nebraska, as a child, she knew nothing but travel. Both her husbands were men she met through her career.
She met her first husband Joe when she was 25, and later was married to Charles Staunko, with whom she owned and operated the Southland Amusement carnival until she was 90; continuing her work long after Charles died.
She also played indoor theater during the carnival’s off seasons, often returning to the Chicago Theater.
“This was the heyday of Vaudeville,” Ivene said. “Performances were really appreciated.”
She built her own act and booked herself doing stunts atop a single pole high in the air.
She was also a “top mounter” in pyramids and once fell and broke her foot and had to take off work for awhile. It was during that time she met her second husband.
Her eyes twinkled as she told the story.
They were married 25 years, so when she buried him, it was in a silver casket.
Ivene Staunko has had one heck of a life. But the true fact is that it isn’t over yet. She’s as spry as a 70-year old, and looks no older than that.
Circus and carnival life must have kept her young.