Sunday, December 14, 2008

The day the Circus came to town

Yesterday was a day for chores. We gathered up old things, we sorted through the disheveled bookcases, and we sorted things into piles - trash, recycling, and give-to-Goodwill.

The Goodwill drop-off station is in the Valley, in a funny vacant lot in the midst of the shopping malls. In past years, a Halloween haunted house has been contructed here; at other times it has been fenced off and deserted.

Today we pulled in near the Goodwill trailer, and we saw something different.The fence to the lot behind the Goodwill trailer was open, and there it was - the Big Top.

A real circus tent. It was Circus Vargas. Circus Vargas started in California in the 1960s and is one of the biggest - and only - American tent shows touring the US today.

While [The Man I Love] unloaded all our Goodwill donations, I walked up there and talked to the woman in the ticket office. Behind us, you could hear the sounds of the show going on in the tent.

They were on a two-week stand. Tomorrow was the last day. The next show today was at 4:30.

"Can we go to the circus?" I asked [The Man I Love] when I rejoined him at the Goodwill trailer.

Because [The Man I Love] loves me, he agreed. We did our errands, and came back to the lot at 4:10 and bought tickets.

We went through the turnstile and checked out the "Midway" - or, rather, the trailer with the food concession. We got some popcorn and drinks.

This is the entrance into the tent. When you go in you find your seat in the curved, tiered seating area around a single circus ring. At the north end of the tent, a curtained portal is the performers' entry.

As audience slowly filed in, we awaited the show's beginning.

It was a kick to be back at the circus again. In 1978, I worked for the Big Apple Circus, which held its second season in a tent just like this one, in a parking lot on 8th Avenue at 50th Street.

We watched the warm-up where a juggler taught kids balancing tricks. Vendors roamed the aisles selling popcorn, cotton candy, and blinking colored light-up toys. Then the roustabouts unrolled a red carpet on the asphalt surface of the center ring, and the show began.

The show starts with a dance and parade featuring all of today's performers. For circus folks, this is called the "Spec", short for "spectacular."

Circus Vargas's show includes a trampoline act, a juggling act, and a dare-devil motor-bike act. There's a clown, and a snake-handling act.

If you go to a circus, you can tell a lot about what will be in the show by looking up at the rigging. All the apparatus is hung above. The trapeze act's equipment is obvious, but even some floor-based acts have equipment that is stored in the air, so that it can be lowered in the dark for the roustabouts to set up quickly. I could see a ring for an aerial act, and also that there would be a "Spanish web" act.

A Spanish web is a thick rope covered with canvas. An aerialist can wrap the rope around her limbs and use the friction of the rope to ascend, descend, or stay held in space by the tension of the rope. Some web acts have a ground-person who spins the rope so that the centrifugal force flings the performer out in the air, anchored to the web by a wrist loop.

Circus Vargas used a variation on the canvas-covered rope, a double length of silk fabric the aerialists twined about them, forming ever-changing harnesses and baskets to hold them in the air.

It looks spectacular, but it's actually pretty easy to do simple "web" tricks. This one was pretty good, though.

There are two animal acts - one with a horse, and a Dog Act. And cats.

Now, to circus folks, a Cat Act is what you call any act with tigers, lions, or other big cats. What was unusual about this act was that it was a Dog Act with cats. House cats.

After The Big Apple, when I went on to Ringling's Monte Carlo Unit, that show had a tiger act. If you work for a show with a cat act, you get used to the smell of tiger pee.

Tigers can shoot pee some ten or twenty feet. You don't want to get hit by a hot stream of tiger pee. Circus folks know to move out of the way when they see those tails rise up!

So when the beautiful, fluffy white house-cat, trained to leap over a small black dog, turned his backside to our section of seats, and lifted his tail, I got a little frisson of that feeling. But of course it passed. House cats are way different than tigers.

Tigers are easier to train.

The audience applauded enthusiastically at everything. Children were enthralled with entertainment like this, so different from television or movies. Little girls watched the aerialist spinning on her ring in the air as if she were magic. Some of the performers were even little girls - which made it all more magic to know that kids could do this, too!

But there we were, two grownups. I'd like to say we enjoyed the rest of the show, but as it turned out, we didn't stay for the second act, even though it featured the Flying Tabares family's trapeze act. The evening was growing colder and colder, and we hadn't brought jackets - having left the house just to run errands. We were freezing!

At the Big Apple, I had been in charge of lighting. Sitting there in the tent, smelling the popcorn and the peculiar smell of vinyl and canvas, I remembered again how I had been always listening for the sound of the generator running. Back then, diesel generators were dirty and noisy, and took a lot of tending to keep the electricity going. An unexpected lighting problem during a tumbling or juggling is very dangerous for the performers. During a show there was always a sense of watchfulness about it.

Like my reaction to seeing that cat raise its tail, I couldn't help having that wary feeling. The lights, the smells, the sounds put me back on the job.

When the lights went up for Intermission, the roustabouts started hoisting the safety net for the Trap Act. I caught myself checking out what knot one of the riggers was using to tie off his line.

Can you ever leave show business behind?

Circus Vargas performs the last shows of its Canoga Park run tomorrow, Monday December 15. They are located just off Topanga Canyon Boulevard, south of Victory Boulevard. I wish them a good stand. A fierce winter storm is predicted for the Los Angeles area tonight and tomorrow. I hope the Big Top withstands the winds.


CaShThoMa said...

Very cool, indeed. What fun, especially when it was so spontaneous a decision to go to the circus! I loved reading your "insider" commentary too.

Have you read the book "Like Water for Elephants"? I thought it was a fascinating tale of circuses during the Great Depression era.

Briget said...

I just found your blog, and spent most of yesterday afternoon scrolling back and back and back, finding myself ever more enthralled by your descriptions of the sights and scents (and tastes!) of the southern California where you live.

I don't have a blog myself (maybe someday soon), but keep a sporadic journal at livejournal and a constant one on my own laptop. I also write and share at, here in Southern Ohio.

I'll be back!

Anonymous said...

Did you work with Anna May and Buckles? Feel free to join the Circus Open for Circus Arts group on!


cactus petunia said...

I love the idea of a Dog and House Cat Act...I have a few clowns of both species around here who love to work for treats. Maybe we can put on a show...I already feel my life is a circus anyway.
I can't imagine getting hit with tiger pee, though. cat pee is bad enough!

Anonymous said...

Sorry girl,I've tagged you.But if you want to wait until after Christmas,feel free...Ann

Steph(anie) said...

Love this.

Queenly Things said...

I just love that close to the ground kind of circus. What luck that you found it.