Everything was bananas at the Hayes Valley Carnival

Circus performers put on impressive feats for attendees of all ages on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

All photos by Aaron Levy-Wolins for The Bold Italic.

This article was originally published on The Bold Italic, by Aaron Levy-Wolins


I’ve been a San Franciscan long enough to know that the city isn’t always family friendly. In fact, SF has been touted for having more dogs here than kids — we even have an annual Corgi Con where crowds swoon over the large-eared pups.

But on Saturday afternoon, the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association put on a family-friendly event in a small parklet, the Hayes Valley Carnival. It is a revival of a 4-day event that took place in the early 1900s, but then took a centurylong hiatus.

Performers with Circus Bella do contortion and handstands at the Hayes Valley Carnival in San Francisco on Saturday, July 15, 2023

Performers with Circus Bella do contortion and handstands at the Hayes Valley Carnival in San Francisco on Saturday, July 15, 2023

I gotta say, I was impressed.

Between the hot dogs and San Francisco-made ice cream, a few carnival game booths and face painting, the atmosphere was excited and jubilant. And everyone who I talked to remarked about the importance of neighborhood events as a space and time to bring your kids, meet your neighbors and enjoy a sunny weekend afternoon.

“San Francisco is a total artist area; it’s a place where they’re supposed to flourish,” said Zoe Strange, who was practicing and performing with devil sticks. “We have the Palace of Fine Arts for that reason, and we have so many areas where art is supposed to be inspired as well as created for the community. Events like this are extremely important as it keeps the creative energy flowing.”

Zoe Strange, a member of Velocity Circus, performs with devil sticks at the Hayes Valley Carnival in San Francisco on Saturday, July 15, 2023. (Aaron Levy-Wolins/The Bold Italic)

Families sat on benches and crowded artificial turf next to a stage. Circus Bella took their positions and performed everything from acrobatics to clowning.

What made it all so audacious and fun is their use of lots and lots of bananas. Bananas were eaten and peels slipped on, inflatable ones were used to knock over fellow performers and banana costumes were even worn in the grand finale. And all the while, performers kept dramatically reiterating, “There are no bananas allowed!”

Abigail Munn — the self-described “boss lady, director, co-founder, top-banana” — said that last year, all the performers would sit backstage before shows and eat bananas and one jokingly suggested making the show this year banana-themed. “And then I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what if we ended the show with everyone in banana costumes? Could we do that?’”

Performers with Circus Bella, dressed in banana costumes, juggle and pass pins to one another at the Hayes Valley Carnival.

They did.

Before a great roar of applause, the whole cast came out on stage, dressed in head-to-toe banana costumes and juggled pins to one another. One performer even rode on the shoulders of another, juggling pins to and fro.

Munn and a close friend founded Circus Bella in San Francisco in 2008. Munn is “hyper-local” to the Carnival and grew up on Hayes Street over the hill from the event location at PROXY. She said that growing up in opera helped drive the circus’ big, grandiose nature with big expressions on the performers’ faces, great costumes and great showmanship.

“I think San Francisco especially deserves and should have a great circus,” said Munn.

“I think circus is an amazing opportunity; it creates an event for the community to come together. We try to bring excellence to neighborhoods, and then what happens is all the neighbors come out as people from the city, and we sit together and we laugh and we have a joyous, fun experience.”

Aaron Levy-Wolins is a San Francisco-based photojournalist and writer.

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