"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages! Step right up, and see the fabulous feats—and fantabulous feet!—of the human marvel of circus instruction, Hovey Burgess!"
The New Yorker
It all began at the Slipper Room—a variety theatre in Manhattan's Lower East Side—at Table #1, in the seat occupied most nights by Mr. Hovey Burgess, the internationally celebrated juggler, clown and circus performer.
Burgess was in the final years of a lengthy teaching career—beginning almost fifty years earlier in 1966—as Master Teacher of Circus Techniques in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Acting program. During his "down time" he would immerse himself into watching the nightly burlesque and variety shows presented at the Slipper Room, where he'd often watch Lil' Miss Lixx—the burlesque performer known as the Candy Coated Cutie—giving one of her many delightful, barnstorming, feel-good performances from the stage.
The two were to become firm friends and eventually associates, sharing together a love of variety arts, a rowdy audience and a bawdy a sense of humor. Lixx volunteered to bring herself onto the production team for an upcoming, one-of-a-kind show, featuring Hovey's favorite circus, burlesque, and sideshow artists. The Hovey Burgess 75th Birthday Gala Benefit Show, presented by Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, took place at Dixon Place, NYC on Tuesday September 8, 2015.
But their onstage collaboration didn't take place until well over a year later, when Hovey was invited by Bambi the Mermaid to appear in the first annual Mr. Coney Island Pageant on Saturday May 13, 2017—a curated alternative all-male beauty contest held at the Sideshow Theater in the famous Brooklyn seaside resort. He accepted and put together a foot juggling act while dressed as a polar bear, with Lixx partnering him as coach and trainer. The audience, like the bears themselves, went wild.
It was on a trip to Paris, shortly after the pageant, during a visit to the Crazy Horse saloon that Hovey and Lixx decided to expand the act that would eventually become the Polar Bare.
The polar bear theme was a no-brainer for Hovey; he'd gotten his start under the Big Top as a young man living in Michigan—he'd joined a passing circus when he was just seventeen—and was soon performing a circus act with a live polar bear, developing a love for the arctic creatures that still endures today. As exotic animals were now banned from the circus ring in the five boroughs of New York City by legislation introduced by Rosie Mendez, Hovey was damn sure the polar bear was not about to be forgotten.
Hovey and Lixx set out to shape the act into something that would eventually become a standalone variety act—suitable for adult circus, variety and burlesque audiences while incorporating elements from all fields.
With elaborate faux fur polar bear skins designed by Juanita Cardenas and Lixx's lavish circus trainer costume by Garo Sparo, no expense was spared while gathering "the look" of the act. In addition, and of the utmost importance, Hovey commissioned his first trinka (a cradle designed to assist him to juggle with his feet, while reclining on his back with his legs raised upwards) from Ernest Clennell, a master prop maker living in the suburbs of Paris.
With Hovey's teaching retirement on the horizon—literally just a few weeks away—he couldn't have been more certain about which direction he wanted his post-retirement life to head. It was the Polar Bare, all the way.
Nick Paumgarten of the New Yorker magazine requested to "sit in" on Hovey's final class at NYU, where he observed the legendary circus man give his last teachings to the gathered students.
"Burgess stood in the middle of the studio on a blue mat, beneath a web of wires and brackets. “This will be my last class,” he said. “When I’m done teaching today, I’m going to be a foot juggler. I will travel the world and become world-famous for foot juggling.” He showed them a recent photo of a man in a polar-bear suit, foot-juggling at Coney Island."
– The New Yorker, January 1, 2018
Soon, they were booked to appear at New York's Dixon Place in the Monday February 5, 2018 edition of the monthly open stage variety show produced by Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. The act was a resounding success, this time gaining the all-important seal of approval from New York's circus community.
Hovey and Lixx performed a revised version of the act in Tainted Cabaret at the Slipper Room on Sunday April 14, 2018 headlining the show and drawing an appropriate "roar" of approval from the downtown audience.
But their next project was on an even bigger scale: a sold out show where it all began, at Coney Island USA. Bostock & Burgess' Arena of Exotic Beasts on Saturday July 14, 2018 paid homage to the Bostock menagerie that was resident in Coney Island during the early part of the 20th century. Co-producing and headlining with Lil' Miss Lixx, the Polar Bare was the final act in an animal-themed show starring Bambi the Mermaid, Amy G, Bunny Love, Zoe Ziegfeld, Cheeky Lane, Mr. Gorgeous, circus performer Chris McDaniel, neo-burlesque legend Dirty Martini, and host Miss Astrid.
On Monday August 6, 2018 Hovey and Lixx gave a performance at UCB East Village in Nat Towsen's Downtown Variety Hour, with fellow guests Baratunde Thurston and Sean Patton.
Hovey and Lixx returned to the Slipper Room on Thursday October 18, 2018 for Stache Novak's Midnight Fingers. The other acts on the bill were James and the Giant Pasty and Francine the Lucid Dream.
On Thursday November 15, 2018, Hovey and Lixx left New York to fly to Churchill, Manitoba in northern Canada for a special excursion to observe the polar bears in their natural habitat: the Tundra, staying onboard a 'rolling hotel', returning to New York City on Wednesday November 21, 2018.
The year ended with another appearance at the Slipper Room in the Wilfredo a Go Go! Holiday Special, on Monday December 17, 2018 co-starring with Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz and Wilfredo himself. The Polar Bare closed Act One, with Hovey making a surprise second foot-juggling appearance halfway through Act Two as "himself", chatting to the audience and giving a demonstration from the trinka, with the crowd helping him to count the rounds.
2019 opened with a performance in Hudson, NY at Club Helsinki on Saturday January 26 for the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Hovey and Lixx appeared with Sabrina Chap, Hilary Chaplain, Chloe Somers and Candice Storley in the adult variety show Cabin Fever.
On Friday March 8, 2019 Hovey and Lixx flew to Las Vegas to attend presentations of Absinthe, Opium and a performance by Penn & Teller, who invited them backstage. Penn Jilette was a student of Hovey's back in the days of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College (Class of 1973).
Hovey and Lixx are also photographed behind the scenes at Absinthe with Slipper Room favorites Raquel Reed and Hazel Honeysuckle.
They returned to New York City on Monday March 11, 2019.
On Monday March 25, 2019, the Polar Bare was the special guest act in The Corn Mo and the Love Show Show at the Slipper Room. The show, fronted by singer-songwriter and musician Corn Mo with performances from the Love Show dancers, also featured a solo spot from Lil' Miss Lixx.
On the evening of Saturday May 4, 2019, Hovey and Lixx appeared among the line-up of The Furry Follies in the Sideshow Theater of Coney Island USA. This animal-themed show was hosted by Tallulah Talons and also starred Emily Shepard, Ivory Fox, Holly Honeypot and Jenny C'est Quoi. The "stage squirrels" for the event were Dixie Disaster, Angelica Lavalier and Mimi Morena.
On Monday May 13, 2019, the act was performed again at the Slipper Room in Wilfredo a Go Go! alongside Gigi Bonbon and Lucy Licious. The following day, the promo reel for The Polar Bare was filmed at the Slipper Room and directed by John Goddard. Hair and make-up was provided by Bambi the Mermaid, while the singer-songwriter Corn Mo composed the score and added vocals in post-production.
On Thursday June 6, 2019 Hovey opened in St. Louis in Circus Flora in The Caper in Aisle 6. The cast included Mooky Cornish, the Wallenda Family, Matt Morgan, Caleb Carinci, and director/ringmaster Cecil MacKinnon. Lil' Miss Lixx and comedian Matt Roper a.k.a Wilfredo flew out from New York City to attend his final performance on Sunday June 30, 2019.
Back in New York City, Hovey and Lixx teamed up for their big summer show at Coney Island USA on Saturday July 27, 2019. Kinky Christmas in July was hosted by Bradford Scobie as Moisty the Snowman. Julie Atlas Muz, Dirty Martini, Bambi the Mermaid, Ivory Fox, Glen Heroy and Penny Wren all performed. The go-go girls were Boo Bess and Boo Boo Darlin'.
On Monday August 5, 2019, the promo reel for the Polar Bare was premiered at the Slipper Room prior to a screening of Robert Altman's 1980 motion picture Popeye, in which Hovey was circus choreographer and appeared as Mort, one of the Roughhouse Gang. Camille Habacker interviewed Hovey prior to the screening, with James Habacker leading a Q&A afterwards. Lil' Miss Lixx, Matt Roper, Gigi Bonbon, Boo Boo Darlin', Puss 'n' Boots and Gogo Gadget were among those in attendance.
On Saturday October 12, 2019, a month after his 79th birthday, Hovey opened in the Big Apple Circus at the start of their annual season at New York's Lincoln Center, returning full-time to work in the circus—just as he did in his youth. The show, created by the mother-and-son team of Cecil MacKinnon and Jack Marsh, closed on Sunday February 2, 2020. Dupla Mao Na Roda (hand-balancing act), Savitsky Cats (performing housecats), the Aliev Troupe (Russian barre and aerial casting), Lopez Troupe (high wire), the Bingo Straps (aerial straps), Jayson Dominguez (Wheel of Destiny), Kyle Driggs (juggler), Caleb Carinci and Renny Spencer (equestrianism), Amy Gordon (clowning) and the Big Apple Circus's first ever Afro-Latina singing ringmaster Storm Marrero were all on the bill. Musical accompaniment was played by the Big Apple Circus Band.
On the night of Monday January 27, 2020, Hovey and Lixx performed a "family friendly" version of the Polar Bare act for the first time in Midnight Clowns under the canvas of the Big Apple Circus. This invitation-only show is a time-honored tradition by BAC, featuring informal performances by cast and crew members, as the circus nears the end of season. The season closed and Hovey gave his final performance with his fellow Big Apple cast members on Sunday February 2, 2020.
Hovey and Lixx reunited to perform the Polar Bare at the Slipper Room on Thursday February 27, 2020 in Stache Novak's Midnight Fingers alongside Penny Wren and Rose Quartz, followed by an appearance in Wilfredo a Go Go at the same venue on Monday March 9, 2020 with Gigi Bonbon and the Great Dubini also on the bill.
On Thursday July 15, 2020, Hovey climbed into the Polar Bare costume again for a short foot juggling performance to contribute to Club Renegade, the traditional late night show that contributes to the annual events of the International Juggler's Association convention. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the convention was cancelled for the first time since it's beginnings in Jamestown, NY back in June 1948. Club Renegade was broadcast online via Zoom, connecting jugglers and spectators around the world, with Pinkie Special, Cindy Marvel, Jennifer Miller, Bob and Lucy Nickerson and many, many more performing their routines. The event was hosted by comedian Ngalo Bealum in Los Angeles. Hovey was assisted in Lixx's absentia by Wilfredo, from the Circus Room of his East Village mezzanine apartment.
At 1pm on Saturday June 17, 2023, at the invitation of Bambi the Mermaid, Hovey participated in the 41st Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
The event, dating back to 1983, is a highlight of New York's summer and the nation's largest art parade. This year, it was emceed by actor and burlesque host Bradford Scobie.
The 2023 parade marked a return to its "full scale" status, in the wake of the social restrictions of the global pandemic, and featured a spectacle of over 3000 brightly-colored performers and participants.
The Polar Bear was seen by thousands of spectators along Surf Avenue and on Coney Island's iconic boardwalk, and was featured in various press reports of the event, from Brooklyn Magazine to the New York Daily News.
The image became a huge hit on social media, particularly via the Instagram page of New York Nico, whose coverage of the celebratory event played to an audience of over 1 million online followers.
In keeping with the "polar" theme of the parade, Hovey was accompanied by an entourage of three penguins (comedian Matt Roper, magician Gregory "The Great Dubini" Dubin, and acrobat Jeffry Stilt), as photographed outside Coney Island USA by Norman Blake.