Sunday, August 31, 2008

What's Really Going On Under The Big Top?

“This is the Big One!” Nearly every merchant window in Florence, Oregon displayed the yellow and red colored posters. They featured a circus elephant, red-nosed clowns and beautiful women adorned with feather plumed headdresses and glimmering costumes. “Carson & Barnes Circus, under a tent the size of a football field,” now that is BIG, and it was.

Sure, the posters grabbed our attention and so did the advance article in The Siuslaw News. But nothing got our attention at such a high magnitude as the Casino’s security team. Ed and I had been boondocking in the parking lot of Three Rivers Casino in Florence. Security came around to all the boondocking RVers asking us all to vacate the parking lots by the end of the day to make room for the circus. In 24-hours, the Casino lot would be transformed by The Big Top. Now, not only did I want to see the show, I wanted to know what’s really going on under the Big Top.

My guide introduced himself as the circus spokesman and clown “Poppa D.” Two hours before show time, Poppa D looked like an ordinary guy in a red t-shirt and shorts. By way of introduction, Poppa D explained he wasn’t always a clown but bits of clowning ran through his career. In his pre-circus life, Poppa D laughingly told me he worked as a “P E Warden”. I interpreted that to mean a physical education teacher, a job from which he retired at age 66. Before that, he served as a District Director for the Boy Scouts of America. While with BSA, he created “Freddie” the Hobo Clown, a lively addition to the Blue & Gold Banquet circuit. Freddie, he said, entertained families attending these traditional scouting events by performing pocket tricks. He did some dangerous clowning in his career too. Sometime back in 1972, Poppa D braved the bulls as a rodeo clown. Poppa D was serious about clowning, so serious that he trained as a professional clown by going to clown school in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. His wife Elaine went to the school too and created her own clown persona. Together, they travel eight months of the year performing in 500 shows in as many as 230 cities throughout 24 states in the US.

Poppa D pointed to the upper parking lot where our own coach had been the lone RV parked there a day earlier. It sure had changed. An assortment of RVs, truck campers, and a semi-trailer were crowded into the lot. This was now the circus camp. Some 130 performers and members of the support crew travel and live together on the road. There are 18 kids in the bunch whose parents work for the Carson & Barnes Family Circus. Parents home school these youngsters while on the road. Young and old crowd around the semi truck - the chuck wagon - for meals and sit at the portable tables -their informal dining room. They represent 12 countries from around the globe – Peru, Brazil, Mexico, the Ukraine, Columbia, Nicaragua and more. Before the circus season ends, these folks will travel some 50,000 miles bringing the circus to towns just like Florence, Oregon.

Carson & Barnes Family Circus is based in Hugo, Oklahoma. It’s been a family run business for over seven decades, preserving the traditional three-ring circus.

“It’s the biggest Big Top in the US,” Poppa D said with a wave of the hand emphasizing the grandeur of the circus tent. I found its dimensions on the circus website. The tent is indeed as large as a football field some 270-feet by 150-feet with over 2,000 seats.

The Big Top Crew set up the tent that very morning. According to Poppa D, set-up take 4 ½ hours. Tear down begins at 9:30 PM immediately after the end of the second performance. By 12:30 PM, the Big Top and all its parts will be packed up in 45 vehicles and ready to move by sun-up. This routine is repeated every day during the circus season.

The 119 poles for the Big Top are anchored by 450 stakes in the blacktop of the Casino lot. I asked Poppa D about the obvious pits the stakes would leave behind. Part of the tear down, he told me involves filling each hole with sand, gravel and more blacktop. A few days later, I walked through the lot where hundreds of stakes anchored the Big Top. Just as Poppa D had promised, there was not a trace of the circus stakes ever having cut through the surface of the lot.

Poppa D says the advance team needs to find lots that measure 400-feet by 300-feet to accommodate the Big Top, Concessions, animals and all the people. Fairgrounds are the best locations for the circus, casinos and church lots work too.

Poppa D and I walked under the Big Top past the three rings where performers would simultaneously entertain the afternoon and evening audiences. In all, there’d be 40 acts in each show. Can the circus acts compete with highly produced TV shows? Would the old fashioned circus fill the seats, all 2,000? Poppa D told me that the circus is an “endangered art form in the US” but is a “big deal in other countries like Mexico.” He was hoping for a big crowd in Florence drawing families with a “Butts in the Seat” promotion, one price for an entire family. No matter how many butts filled the seats, the show would go on!

The circus performers were ready. They had practiced earlier in the day under the Big Top. Rudy and Silvia were in the tractor trailer converted to a sound room testing the equipment. They would play the traditional circus music throughout the performances. Costumes hung on the racks ready for each performer to grab a quick change. The prop truck doors were open. Inside were the hoops, hats, and headdresses. The list of acts in order of performance was taped to the side of the prop truck so performers could check sequence of the acts. The elephants had been feed and watered. The generator – The Electric Department – hummed with power for the lights and sound. Whiffs of cotton candy scented the air around the concessions. Circus balloons bobbed in the breeze. Folks were lining up for tickets at the gate. The circus was taking on a new life, but a life sight-unseen to the circus goers had already unfolded under the Big Top.

August 28, 2008

Carson & Barnes Family Circus

With special thanks to Poppa D
who made this experience & story possible.

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