Saturday, August 25, 2007

Circus life

We didn't travel with the circus, which is both the good news and the bad news. On the bad side, it meant that I wasn't part of the magical circus world. When I was very young, I watched Circus Boy on Saturday mornings, wishing that I could run away with Corky (played by Micky Dolenz - yup, that Micky Dolenz, the one in the Monkees). It also meant that my father was gone for nine months out of the year. We saw him once or twice a season when the circus came to our area of central Texas, but that was just for a day at a time. I allegedly went through a stage, at around 4, when I called any man who came to the door "Daddy". During the winter, when the rest of the circus was in winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida, he made money by playing in local dance bands, which often meant that he was on the road traveling to gigs a couple of days a week. So, the memory of helping him glue glitter and letter manila folders is one of the few father-daughter activities I actually remember.

On the up side, by not traveling with the circus I was able to go to school. True, it didn't seem like such a great deal at the time, but I can see the benefits at this point. Circus folk, the performers anyway, typically did travel with their families. Often the entire family, including kids, was part of the act. The Flying Wallendas are one of the best known family acts. My father was especially fond of the Wallendas and worked with them in various circuses throughout his career. (I always thought it was odd that they were called The Flying Wallendas when their act was tightrope walking. I thought "flying" should be reserved for the aerialists, who were my favorite performers.) I suppose circus kids went to school during the winter and there might have been some who were tutored during the season, but it's hard to believe they got a great education. Also, traveling with the circus wasn't, and probably still isn't, glamorous -- unless we're talking Cirque du Soleil, which is a fabulously glamorous circus that might actually provide glamorous accommodations for the performers.

The performers, musicians, and circus hands lived in trailers, which would be parked every which way out behind the tent, far enough away so that they wouldn't be bothered by nosy audience members and upwind of the elephant pen. It was a little immigrant neighborhood, not just because they were itinerant performers, but because most of the performers were actual immigrants. Walking back to my dad's trailer through the dust or mud -- it was always either dusty or muddy, because trucks and trailers tore up the fairground -- I heard half a dozen different languages punctuated by the big cats roaring, sniffed odd cooking smells and the occasional whiff of an elephant pile. You could never really escape the smell of the elephants.

As a child I found these visits behind the scenes strange and a little disturbing. Partly it was the feeling of being in an unfamiliar, rather seedy neighborhood that didn't look like a place I'd be allowed to hang out in under normal circumstances. Partly it was the clowns. They typically didn't take off their make-up in between shows, but they would, of course, take off their clown suits. It's pretty disturbing to see a man in full clown make-up, a stained undershirt, worn corduroy pants held up with suspenders (not the funny clown kind), and a receding hairline smoking a cigarette while he polishes his shoes. Also, the clowns always seemed to be frowning and unfriendly.

Other people were friendly though. There are dozens of people who saw me every year when the circus passed through Texas and I'm sad to say I don't really remember any of them. I do remember what they'd say when they saw me though: "Boom Boom! How did such an ugly guy like you end up with such a pretty daughter?!"


Helen | Pepperina Press said...

I love hearing these memories. Fascinating.

pamela said...

what a sweet memoir of your dad's career!

I love your telling of what the circus was like through your eyes!