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A national treasure

Scott McCulloch is Editor of Families in Business magazine.

The Knie dynasty, the eighth-generation family behind Switzerland's famed national circus recently cracked the 200-year mark. Who says family businesses rarely last the distance?

The show, as they say in showbiz, must go on. The Knie dynasty, the colourful family business behind the Swiss National Circus would agree. "We do not want to disappoint our audience," says Fredy Knie Jr, the 57-year old son of the legendary horseman Fredy Knie Sr. "It's the only way to be profitable."

Dry, improbable words from a circus man – an artiste whose Austro-Swiss legacy is embedded in the Swiss national psyche? Perhaps. The Knie family, the 200-year old dynasty behind the Swiss National Circus has had more than its fair share of hardship. Wars, blacklists, suicide – a clutch of tribulations failed to stem the family spirit to enrapture European audiences and grow the business into a national treasure. 

The family always came first. When Friedrich Knie (1784–1850), the son of an Austrian doctor, moved to Innsbruck in 1803, he could have never imagined his decision would set in motion one of the world's most celebrated circus dynasties ever. Born in Erfurt, the would-be doctor, aged 19, abandoned his medical studies to follow his heart and travel the country with a small band of artists. Friedrich launched his own band of tightrope walkers and acrobats and in 1807 he met Antonia Stauffer. Her father, a humble barber, was loath to let her daughter marry a wandering artist and packed her off to a convent. Love conquered all and legend has it that Friedrich sprang her from the convent one stormy night. The couple married that same year.

Meanwhile, Europe was in the throes of the Napoleonic wars. With that came hardship but in 1808, Rudolf, their first of five children, was born. Siblings George, Karl, Fanny and Franz followed and the second generation took hold in an era of instability that failed to quell the family's irrepressible passion for performance.

By 1818 Knie performances were numerous and widespread. In 1828 the entertainers would set foot in Zurich for the first time. That same year Rapperswil  – the family's spiritual home – would also play host to its band of tightrope walkers and bareback riders. Eventually Rudolf, the eldest, and his brother Franz would set up their own business. Meanwhile, Karl's prowess on the tightrope had earned him a reputation as Europe's top acrobat. Indeed, the moniker overshadowed his eventual position as company director, a role he assumed in 1850 when their father died. Though burdened by responsibility, Karl found time for romance and, aged 37, he wed Anastasia Staudinger who bore him seven children, and all of whom would perform in the company's third generation.

Karl's career was short-lived. In 1860 he died suddenly, aged 46, while on holiday in Fribourg-en-Brisgau. Newly widowed Anastasia wasted little time turning her hand to running the act and it wasn't long before Ludwig, their fourth boy, followed in his father's measured footsteps, electrifying audiences as he strode the high wire.

From being mountebank tightrope walkers in village squares, the family travelled across Europe to settle in Switzerland. In 1866 in the Swiss canton of Soleure, Ludwig and his younger brother Charles applied for naturalisation. But the fee required by the local authority was never paid and the application stalled. In 1872 Anastasia returned to Bern where she died nine years later. 

Through hard graft and with what little savings they had Ludwig and his wife Marie Knie-Heim revived the act. They had five sons and a conspicuous absence of girls was resolved when Ludwig and Marie took in tykes Nina Zutter and Anneli Simon. By then Louis, their eldest son, had decided to launch his own troupe in Germany.

In December 1900, the Swiss municipality of Gerlikon granted the Knie family 'permission to site', and in 1907 they went on to register in Rapperswil, the hometown of the circus. Two years later Ludwig died and his widow Marie took the reins of the business. After the first world war Marie's four boys, Friedrich, Rudolf, Carl and Eugen were keen to realise a long-held dream: transforming the ring into a big top circus tent. Ever cautious, Marie sharply opposed the idea – she saw it as folly and refused to open her purse strings to back her children. But the family's golden rule of never to buy on credit was effectively broken when they procured their first two-ring tent. It had capacity for 2500 spectators and they raised the structure for the first time at Schutzenmatte in Bern.

Opening night fell on 14 June 1919, three months after Sophie Knie-Griesser and Margrit Knie-Lippuner wed Friedrich and Rudolph in a double ceremony. Both women sold tickets at the big top proudly emblazoned with 'Knie Brothers' Swiss National Variety Circus'. An impatient crowd, enthralled by the Knie's new-fangled entertainment, swept passed them. The ticket office was ill-equipped to cope with demand – but the circus was a runaway success.

It was a memorable year – one which saw the Knie's winter site in Rapperswil take shape. Business was good. In 1920, Friedrich presented his beloved horses for the first time and in May his son Fredy was born.

Fredy's earliest experiences in the ring were as a four-year old acrobat. By the age of 12 he had developed into a first-class dressage rider, and was brought to London by Bertram Mills to star in his circus as 'Freddie Knie, the Little Lord Fauntleroy of the Circus'. His younger brother Rolf, under the guiding hand of his father, also became an accomplished artiste. Both trained rigorously with their older cousin, Eliane, daughter to Eugen Knie and Helen Zeller. Friedrich, the eldest of the four directors, immersed himself into the circus, mainly as a 'clown in white' who drew howls from his audience. His brother Rudolph was the straight man, often concluding his acrobatics early to tend to company finances and prepare tours. Eugen too – a heart-stopping tightrope walker in the days of the ring – found solace in behind-the-scenes work. Brother Carl, meanwhile, puzzled over how to reconcile the company's limited finances against his taste for flamboyance.

By 1926 Circus Knie had 80 trailers that served both as accommodation and offices, as well as transport for the family menagerie. By train, the circus would travel with no fewer than 42 carriages. The family amassed a huge array of animals: horses, ponies, elephants, wild and exotic animals – not only stocking their own circus with fresh acts each year but supplying most of the major circuses in Europe with animal acts.

On his ninth birthday, Fredy was given his first horse and in no time earned himself a reputation as the youngest horseman in the world. When he entered the ring audiences rose to applaud him.

In 1933 Rudolph died, aged 48, and soon after his brother Carl would incorporate the family business. Although opposed by Friedrich, his brother Eugen welcomed the move and in 1934 the Knie family corporation was born. Carl's influence on the business took greater hold and that same year his live 'aquatic pantomime' act would enthrall the company's audiences.

Onwards, though not always upwards, the circus went. In 1935 some 50 artists were brought in from India as the circus went on to stage 'India' – the family's first major production. The gambit flopped and Friedrich lost a substantial amount of cash in an effort to ward off bankruptcy. Austerity measures were duly implemented and programmes took on a more modest tone.

In 1936 Marie Heim-Knie died, aged 78, and a year later Friedrich's performing days would draw to a close following a tumble with a horse. By then his son Fredy was already a top horse trainer. But it was the death of Carl that was most devastating. Suffering from depression, he took his life in 1940. Shortly after his brother Friedrich's health began to ebb, and by 1941 he no longer took part in performances; he died that year. In 1942 Fredy and Rolf assumed the roles of directors – one artistic, the other technical. At the same time the military had commandeered a number of horses from the company. However, despite the Knie family finding itself on a Nazi blacklist, the intervention of a German ambassador in Bern made it possible to drum up business in occupied countries. A measure of compensation also came from performances in Berlin where in 1942–43 the brothers appeared at rival variety theatres – Fredy with horses at the renowned Winter Garden theatre and Rolf with his high-wire walking elephant at the Scala theatre. By some miracle, they all escaped injury during heavy bombings in 1943 when both theatres were destroyed.

Fredy married the great Swiss ice-skating star, Pierrette Dubois, in 1945 and following the breakdown of that marriage, married Erica Siegal in 1991. He trained both his sons Fredy Jr and Rolf Jr and, in time, his granddaughter Geraldine Katharina.

During the 1940s the Swiss National Circus was gaining critical mass, drawing in renowned performers in post-war Switzerland. The Knies showed no reluctance in getting the sixth generation of children involved in the family business early and in 1951 Fredy Jr found himself in the spotlight in his first public performance at the tender age of four. Fredy Jr's cousin Louis found himself in similar circumstances as the world youngest elephant trainer, also aged four.

In 1956 Circus Knie set up shop in its new winter location south of Rapperswil train station and in 1962 'le Zoo de jeunes' – a zoo for children – opened in Rapperswil.

For a spell during the 1970s – four generations of Knies were active in the family business. In 1972 Fredy Jr wed Mary-Jose Galland and in January 1973, they had their first child, Géraldine Katharina Knie.

Fredy Sr and Rolf Knie handed over the reins of the family circus at the end of the 1992 season and in 1990 a special gala show was held in Zurich, to celebrate Fredy's 70th birthday. Today Fredy Knie Jr and his cousin Franco run the circus. Rolf, says Fredy Jr left amicably after an outstanding career as an acrobat, animal trainer and clown, becoming Switzerland's most famous painter with his own gallery in Rapperswil. "Of course I regret that my brother left the circus," Fredy Jr explains. "But we split without any bad feeling and he visits often. We're still very close."

Last year his father – the handsome, charismatic leader of the Swiss National Circus – died at the age of 83. "He was, and still is, my shining example," says Fredy Jr. Fredy Sr probably did more for the image of the circus than anyone since Carl Hagenback, who introduced new methods of wild animal training in Germany.

In its 86th year, Circus Knie remains Switzerland's undisputed national circus and the world's finest travelling show, featuring members of the sixth, seventh and eighth generation of Knies. Will the business stay in the family? "Of course!" says Fredy Jr. Of course it will.

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