An American Dream: A YMCA With a Circus

By Deborah Fallows
Performer at the Great Y Circus in Redlands, California.

For those of you who have always dreamed of running off to join the circus, here is a close second: move to Redlands, California, and join the YMCA.  Not only will you get the chance to be a circus star but you’ll also find yourself living in a friendly town with wide palm-lined streets, orange groves, and century-old architecture, not to mention the locally-owned-and-made big four: craft beer, ice cream, chocolate, and coffee. What more could you want?

I went to see Darwin Barnett, the CEO of the Redlands Community YMCA, to find out about the circus, among other things. Barnett has been a lifer in the world of the YMCA, getting his first job there during his college years in Plainview, Texas. He moved up the ranks, and about a year and a half ago, he was looking to find a smallish city where his family could settle in and be part of a strong community.

Redlands came onto Barnett’s radar for those reasons, but also because in the YMCA world, Redlands is unique and famous for its circus.

The Redlands Y circus is not just a tumbler’s wanna-be circus. It is The Great Y Circus, as it is fondly called, a serious circus with high-flying acts, trapeze, rings, unicycles, acrobatics, and teeterboard, where one person jumps onto one end of the teetertotter, launching the partner into the air. The Circus was founded Roy Coble, a former performer with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, shortly after he moved to Redlands in 1927. Once smitten with the circus; always smitten with the circus.

After modest beginnings, the circus has now grown to 350 kids, from toddlers on up who compete for the spots, and dozens of volunteers, many former circus members themselves, who train the performers for several months each year. The Circus plays to sell-out crowds inside the YMCA gym, which was built with extra-high ceilings designed to accommodate the show, for 3 weekends each spring. For instance:

One of our longtime friends in Redlands, a Great Y Circus star in her youth, says that more than 50 years later, she can still hop back on her unicycle. My exuberant sister-in-law, who grew up in Redlands with my husband and their other siblings and is now a serious energy and environment policy consultant, emotes on the formative experience of several years in the circus.  There, she recounts, she learned trampoline flips, marched as part of the troupe in town parades, and really felt part of the gang and the community -- all because of the circus. Others have moved on to professional lives in the circus or as stunt performers.

Unicycles at the Great Y Circus. Photo from, Rockwell Anderson Media

The Past: The YMCA as a town institution.  There’s much more to the Y than the circus. Founded in 1887, it is one of the oldest Ys in the country, and the first in southern California to own its own building, which housed storefronts on the street level and the Y upstairs. They grew quickly through a series of bigger buildings, sharing with some of the many religious groups in town, the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians; adding a public reading room, which foreshadowed another great Redlands institution, the A. K. Smiley Public Library; offering a full-service Y with swimming pool, tennis courts, a gym, kitchen, dining room, and offices. They also added camping programs, first at Catalina Island and then at Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains, just above Redlands. By the 1920s, the Y had bought 3 acres of citrus groves and expanded to the site of today’s Y complex. Enter about then Roy Coble, who offered a “family night”, which grew into the Redlands Great Y Family Circus.

An early YMCA building in Redlands,
via Smiley Library

Throughout the 20th century, The Y modernized with additional facilities including racquetball, the gym, outdoor roller hockey, and outdoor pool, a teen/senior center, locker rooms, exercise room, preschool, and nursery. During WWII, they housed a USO and offered sleeping quarters for military on leave. There was nothing, it seems, that the Y couldn’t do.

So, when the Y aimed its sights on a new pool, Barnett recounted to me, even the cavernous gap between the builder’s bid (12 million dollars) and the fundraisers’ prediction for what they could raise (2 millions dollars) didn’t kill the project. In fact, the town rejected the idea of a lesser option to raze and rebuild from new, saying they didn’t want a “shiny new thing” but instead would press on for funds to save and restore the old buildings instead. And you guessed it, they town did raise the entire amount. Darwin Barnett took me on a tour of the newly redone building, with its preserved portions and its new pool.

New YMCA pool.

The Y in Redlands is an example of “We can do this” answers to “It can’t be done” declarations that we have seen in other small towns as we’ve flown around America. Holland, Michigan, dug up its downtown commercial street to install underground hot water piping to provide a winterlong snowmelt. Burlington, Vermont, turned around a failing school in the down-and-out part of town to a model magnet school with a waiting list.  Eastport, Maine, unboarded its main street buildings in order to open museums, a theater, galleries, and buy-local boutiques.  These are examples of the local civic willpower that we are seeing prevail in the small thriving towns around the US.

Pool in construction period, via Press-Enterprise.

The Present: a bulwark of the community. Nationwide, the number of YMCAs has been going down. Some simply shuttered, like the Y just west of Redlands in Riverside, CA. It was founded in 1884 and closed abruptly, bankrupt, in January, 2013.  Others consolidated. The Y in the bankrupt city of San Bernardino, right next door to Redlands, has been absorbed, along with the Y in neighboring, rural Highland, into the Y structure of Redlands. In these communities adjacent to Redlands, the Y employees about 400 employees in over 50 before and after-school programs for 11,000 kids.  In Redlands proper, I saw several of the big signs on some of its additional 13 school sites.  

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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