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Until the King Charles Troupe rolled into circus history in 1969, there had never been an all-black act under the big top.

And until Greg Rone joined the King Charles Troupe at age 7 in 1976, there had been never been much doubt about what his destiny in life would be.

He was headed, through circumstances beyond his control, down a one-way street with no three-ring options.

"Most of the friends I had then are either dead now or in jail," says Rone, today one of the King Charles Troupe leaders starring in the Greatest Show on Earth ... specifically, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's current touring opus, "Built to Amaze: Nuts & Boltz Edition," headed to Bloomington's U.S. Cellular Coliseum for five performances Friday through Sunday.

(For the record, the current edition's ringmaster, Andre McClain, is also African-American and very much a pioneer himself, a la the King Charles Troupe.)

"I was a child headed for trouble thanks to all the vices in the neighborhood," says Rone, now 46 and one of the Troupe's longest-runners.

"My mother and grandmother saw this is as a way to get away from them, to straighten out my life, and realize there's a better way to live it than standing on the corner looking at ladies for purses to steal."  

While many of the dozen-odd acts on the "Built to Amaze" bill have roots in circus dynasties around the world, the King Charles Troupe was hatched on the mean streets of the South Bronx, where a concerned father named Jerry King decided to buck the societal factors that were destroying the lives of so many young men.

As a boy himself, circa 1918, Jerry had sneaked into a tent for a glimpse of "The Greatest Show on Earth," and emerged dazzled by the twin spectacles of hulking elephants and airborne men on unicycles, suspended on a high wire.

Many years later, he decided to give his son Charles and the neighborhood kids an alternative to street life by forming a unicycle club, with himself as the mentor and rules of discipline, direction and Christian principles strictly administered.   

The mantra: "Get changed, get together, get going." The ritual: prayer, special handshake, team roll call.

Ten years later, in 1969, the group, christened after James' son, were in mass unicycle formation on the sidewalk outside Manhattan's Madison Square Garden.

The occasion: a streetwise audition for Irvin Feld, producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, who was immediately won over, signed the troupe and made circus history.

Captivating Feld was their gravity-defying mass unicycle action, often more in terms of basketball hoops than circus rings, playing a brand of mobile basketball guaranteed to leave The Harlem Globetrotters winded.

Though there had been black performers throughout circus history, the King Charles Troupe was the first act comprised wholly of African-Americans. Today's edition sports three generations of performers.

As one of King Charles' youngest subjects in 1976, Rone describes the circus world as "more to my eyes than I could handle ... it was so amazing coming from New York, which was like being a bunch of crabs in a barrel ... where you could never get out and run away and join the circus. But I was able to run away, and I did join the circus."

Tragedy struck, alas, in 1991, when King Charles and two other members died in a horrific car crash that demoralized his young subjects to the point it looked like the unicycles would be retired.

"We disbanded for a couple years," Rone recalls. "We didn't know what to do ... we were in a state of shock until we realized that it was up to us to go out and work to keep their names alive."

At this weekend's performances in the U.S. Cellular Coliseum, audiences can pick Rone out of the dozen-member troupe: He's in the No. 91 jersey, which is a tribute to the King via the year he died.

For all intents and purposes, says Rone, "I grew up in the circus and under King Charles, who changed my life in a lot of ways. Now I get to go back to my community in the inner city and let kids know there's a better way, and to stick to their goals."

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