Alex Hilton is living proof that you can indeed run off and join the circus.
Last April, the 20-year-old Duncansville native and 2008 Hollidaysburg Area High School graduate joined the Royal Hanneford Circus as a stage handler and props person, said his mother, Sherry Hilton, 42, of Duncansville.
He returned to the area yesterday as the troupe commenced the 71st annual Jaffa Shrine Circus with a 15-show, week-long run.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Alex Hilton (left) talks with a co-worker while waiting for an act to end during the first show of the 72nd annual Jaffa Shrine Circus at the Jaffa Shrine Center in Altoona Monday. The circus travels all over the East and central United States.
"We're very excited to see him. It's his one-year anniversary with the troupe," she said three days prior to his arrival. "We're all so very proud of him and everything he's accomplished. We can't wait to see him."
It all happened when Alex Hilton, who has played the drums most of his life, and lifelong circus lover, decided at last year's Jaffa Shrine Circus that he was going to go backstage and apply for a position in the troupe.
"I just wanted to get out on the road doing something that had to do with entertaining and performing. I went to the Jaffa Circus on a Friday night looking for an opportunity," he said. "I knew the owner [and executive director Struppi Hanneford] from seeing pictures of her in magazines and asked her for a job. I also talked to [troupe vice president and performer] Billy Martin and [troupe superintendent and performer] Benito Aguilar and ended up with a job. Struppi said, 'So you want a job?' I said, 'Yeah I want a job ... I want to be on the road.' She said, 'OK, you start tomorrow.' After the first month of being there, I proved myself to be one heckuva worker and just a good guy to be around. Right now, I'm just working up the chain and looking for more opportunities."
As a non-performing crew member, his responsibilities include making sure all the performers' props are in the right place before an act begins, Alex Hilton said last week in a phone interview, just prior to a performance at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, adding props hands play an integral part in any circus production. Once thought of as a boring, thoughtless job, today it is a serious and artistic skill performed by creative people, he said.
"[Working the props] is and of itself an art," he said. "You have to be very quick when you clean the rings for the next act, and you always have to know what's before and after every act."
And it's no flash-in-the-pan gig either, he said. The young man has parlayed his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity into a full-time year-round job (he has off during the month of December). He plans on staying on for the long haul, eventually working his drum skills into the act.
"Actually, there is a possibility I might play drums in Altoona. There's a small chance that might happen, but I'm not quite sure," he said.
His drumming accomplishments include performing on stage with the Dallas Brass and Prelude, the Wash., DC-based official White House jazz band. He was the recipient of the John Philip Sousa award and the Spirit of the Band Award in high school and placed first at the 2008 District 6 Jazz festival.
In addition to the Royal Hanneford Circus, he also currently tours with the Billy Martin's Cole All-Star Circus.
"Playing for a circus is such a great feeling with kicking all the tricks from the animal acts to giving that intense drum roll when the performers are going for the triple," he said. "I wouldn't be able to do all this without the blessing from my savior Jesus and help from my family."
Alex Hilton grew up in an "entertainment-oriented family that never missed the circus," Sherry Hilton, who co-owns Hilton Family Entertainment in Duncansville with her husband, Rich Hilton, 45, said.
"Ever since Alex and his sister [Kayla, 18] were born, it's been a family tradition to go to the circus every year. We've never missed the Jaffa Circus," she said. "When they were little, they used to put on their own little circus performance for the family. They'd pull out their stuffed animals and perform. Alex was always the lion tamer.
"We always knew that he'd be in the entertainment business in some fashion," she said. "It's been his passion since he was in ninth grade. We knew somehow, somewhere, he was going to perform - we just didn't realize it would happen so quickly. But we're glad to see him doing what he's doing. We're very proud of him."
Despite having a girlfriend, close friends and a loving family in the area, life on the road with a traveling circus hasn't demoralized his spirits.
"I miss everyone, but I don't really get homesick too much," he said. "I do have a girlfriend back home. She's the one I miss the most. But she actually likes what I do and has been very supportive. She thinks it's cool." And indeed she does.
"I'm very proud of him for following his dreams and doing what he's wanted to do his whole life," his girlfriend, Katrina Hayes of Cresson, said. "Having the guts to do what he's done is amazing. I think he's an inspiration to a lot of people who've lost faith in their dreams. He's inspired me too, and words couldn't describe how proud I am of him."
Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460.