A Small Town Traveling Circus ~ One Photographer’s Story of Americana
It’s 9am and Phil is mixing up a batch of his famous Piccadilly pancakes in the crew tent. A young Chinese girl who is part of the Shanghai Pearl acrobat troop casually strolls by with an ornate shower basket.
In the background, a tied up Basset Hound and a fiery Chihuahua hanging out of an RV window are barking up a storm at the stray Calico kitten that is nonchalantly making the rounds in search of food and affection. ”Shut up” yells one of the crew, as the kitten scurries into the tent.
“Those Chinese girls only know five words: power, hello, goodbye and thank you” jokes a member of the set up crew, as the trailer housing the Motorcycle Madness “Globe of Death” slowly backs up to the fairground fence.
Normally by this time, the crew would be practically done with set up. But with a strong line of powerful thunderstorms and damaging wind predicted to hit the fairgrounds within a few hours, there was hesitation.
Supposedly, the show manager and his son Zack were working behind the scenes at a feverish pitch to try and secure a fairground barn for back up (which never happened). But for now, the show was being set up outdoors in front of the bleachers in the main fairground performance area. At least the seats were covered, which meant that only the circus performers would get wet.
“I think we’ve only had to cancel a show once or twice before,” noted a long-haired crew member, as he lit up his Marlboro in the stiff breeze. ”But as they say, the show must go on, and people don’t get paid unless they set up” he tells me.
Only days before, I had jumped at the chance to photograph Piccadilly Circus. No, this is not that famous road junction in London’s West End, but a traveling circus based out of Sarasota Florida that roams the rural back roads day in and day out, playing to the hearts, minds and souls of families living in small-town America.
Frankly, I don’t know how they do it. They wake up early for set up. They work amazingly hard each day getting ready – with everyone chipping in to help no matter what needs to be done.
Even with cracked ribs, Red (as he was affectionately called) didn’t hesitate to break a hard sweat, often running circles around the younger workers. “In a few more years, I plan on retiring so that I can open up my own Moon Bounce business,” Red tells me, as he grabs a heavy set of lighting cables.
They typically run two shows each day at 4:30pm and 7:30pm. They break down and pack up. Then they drive to their next destination later that night and repeat the next morning. But if you ask them, they’ll tell you that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
For these enduring souls, the circus is not just a job; but an honest and freedom-loving way of life – with many of them coming from third, fourth and even fifth-generation circus families. It’s in the blood, as some would say.
And somehow through it all, they still manage to find the time to smile; and to share smiles with all those lucky families that show up each and every night hoping to get a taste of some magic and cotton candy.
I can think of very few jobs that give back in such a rewarding way. After all, the circus truly does bring out the kid in us all – which is more than I can say about most of the jobs out there.
Once word had come down that the show was a go in the outdoor location, the place really started to buzz. The kind Argentinean performer and his wife attended to the pen that housed Rocky, the real-life boxing Kangaroo. A few crew members were busy welding together the Globe of Death. And Wayne was making his way to the bathrooms so that he could clean out the Monkey and Lemur cage.
I helped to barricade the bathroom door with a large barrel, because there would be a bunch of crazy monkeys running around the bathroom stalls for about a half hour. For a minute, I actually felt sorry for the fairground worker that would have to clean them out.
Wayne had experience with crazy animals, as his living quarters were recently trashed when the monkeys somehow got loose. While most likely a temporary situation, Wayne slept with the monkey cage in his room. And if that weren’t bad enough, the two giant jungle Boa Constrictor snakes also shared accommodations.
Now mind you, these weren’t luxury accommodations like you’d find at some $50 a night budget motel, but small claustrophobic sleepers that lined the side of an 18-wheel tractor trailer.
Each small sleeper measured about four feet across by eight feet long and contained two small stacked bunks – barely enough to fit one human being, yet alone two. It was here that most of the crew along with the acrobats from China called home. The remaining performers including many of the circus families typically stayed in their own RVs.
Ahh Wayne, what can I say about Wayne. As the story goes, the circus took him in because he was sort of a homeless drifter whose Mom and Dad had apparently died, although I’m not sure how. Most likely in his early 20s, Wayne was a good looking kid and likable, but a bit naive and gullible.
He’s the kid that everyone picked on, but in a most lovable way. I know that sounds somewhat backwards in this politically correct “anti-bullying” world that we live in, but it makes sense when you’re living the hard life on the road and trying to find some humor in the endless days and sleepless nights. I told Wayne that he shouldn’t really worry until they stop picking on him. In a weird way, I think he actually liked all the attention. For him, Piccadilly Circus was and will always be “Wayne’s World.”
As a matter of fact, they had a sort of “Jackass Movie” stunt thing going on with Wayne, where everyone was trying to whack him in his privates, and a few were even successful, much to the chagrin of Wayne as he clutched his package in pain while belting off some hearty laughs at the same time.
Don’t ask me why kids find whacking other kids in the nuts so entertaining – and I suppose that’s a different blog posting altogether. Even the guy in the fake Rocky Kangaroo costume (they used this for meet and greets) got into the act, as a small crowd gathered to watch the main event unfold.
Much like candid street photography, building trust is key to capturing fleeting moments and gestures. It didn’t take me long to mesh completely with the circus family, and soon my photographic presence became almost transparent and even welcome.
At one point, Dick Garden, the owner of this circus even offered to buy me a cold cut sub for dinner. Now keep in mind, this is a guy that lives and breathes by counting pennies and nickels with each and every ticket sold.
There’s probably not a huge margin in events like these when you factor in payroll and travel expenses (this circus also gives away a ton of free kid tickets, bringing in even less money). And if it rains and the crowds stay away, you’re hit even harder in the wallet. In the traveling circus business, you survive town by town; show by show.
Yet, here he was, offering to buy an “outsider” a sandwich. Truth be told, I didn’t really feel like an outsider (and the circus family sensed this I think). I’ve always been somewhat of a rebel; the type of person who beats to his own drum.
In the depth of my soul, I’m a wandering gypsy just like they are. The welcoming spirit of the people I met fueled my desire to capture their essence and spirit with as much grace and dignity as possible.
One such serendipitous occasion came when I was allowed to photograph Jack, the head circus clown who was applying makeup back in his trailer prior to the first show.
Jack Cook has been at this game for many decades, and is a seasoned pro at getting people to laugh at his physical brand of vintage comedy. Jack’s one man show is called “Madcap Motor Mix-Up,” which features a 1923 Model-T Car that literally has a mind of its own. It’s pretty cool (and creepy) at the same time.
If you’re one of those people who is scared of clowns, then his act just might conjure up visions of John Carpenter’s movie “Christine” about that possessed car; or maybe Stephen King’s clown from the movie “It” combined with a touch of Laurel and Hardy humor thrown in for kicks.
But seriously, Jack is a class act and a very talented performer, and his comedy has a nostalgic feel that is both inspiring and entertaining. All you had to do was listen to the crowds hysterically laughing and cheering from the stands to know that Jack was tapping into something special and timeless – a real sense of Americana.
Then of course there was the Liebel family, headed by Tom, the eccentric yet deeply warm Hungarian patriarch with hair as wild as the animals he trained. With an air that closely resembled that of an Amish family or even a family plucked right from a 1930s Prairie Dust Bowl time machine, Tom along with his wife, two young daughters and son had charge over “Peanuts” the Elephant – one of the main circus attractions.
Tom’s elegantly attired 16-year-old daughter and teenage son took turns riding Peanuts in the ring – showcasing a dazzling display of thrills and acrobatics, as Mom and Dad proudly spotted their kids from ringside. There was a real family dynamic going on here, with even Peanuts having a place at the family table.
To talk about dazzling displays, one of the funniest (and grossest) moments of the evening came when Peanuts relieved herself of dinner (lunch and breakfast) at the conclusion of the last show – a lasting visual souvenir that won’t be soon forgotten by all those who lay witness to her massive fury. Tom explained to me later that evening that Peanuts was tired and was getting a little payback.
As you can probably surmise by now, the show did go on and the powerful thunderstorms and drenching rain that were predicted to hit the circus with a 90% probability fizzled into nothing more than light rain. The winds of fate had different plans that day, which I (and all the families who were able to attend) were eternally grateful for.
The small town traveling circus is a rare gem indeed, entertaining tens of thousands of families across America with an authentic and genuine charm that can’t be bottled nor duplicated.
I don’t want to take away from all the talented performers that make up larger shows like Ringling Brothers or Cirque du Soleil. But these are multi-million dollar “Broadway-like” productions run by suits with fat-cat salaries, rather than by a family of performers and workers dedicated to maintaining a quickly diminishing art form.
For the kind and hard-working people of Piccadilly, it’s really more about celebrating the craft and paying tribute to the time-honored traditions that run deeply through their veins. They won’t make a ton of money doing what they do, but will be rewarded with the richness of experience and bond of family friendship that can only come from living the life of the traveling artist gypsy.
For a brief moment in time, I was able to see through their eyes and step into the colorful show ring right alongside them, as the sound of applause and laughter echoed throughout the stands on a rainy April night in small town America. For tomorrow would bring an entirely new town and adventure – and plenty more smiles to go around.