February 7, 2023

I thought my circus days were over. Not so!

By John Guy LaPlante

I loved the circus. The whole great and marvelous extravaganza of it. Went every time the three-ring big top came to

town.  I’d even go to see them set it up. That was nearly as exciting as the circus itself.

Loved every stunt, every act. The flying trapeze and high-wire daredevils, guys and gals.  The clowns. The lion tamer. The human cannonball. The magnificent elephants. Whatever came up next. The sideshow. Wow oh wow!

Well, the wonderful Cole Brothers Circus died. Then the even more wonderful Barnum & Bailey Circus died.

So, so sad.  That’s it, I thought. My circus days are over.

Years ago I never thought one day the circus would fold. Nobody did. Then things changed.

The day came when TV provided us with terrific amusement every day of the year. Right in the ease and comfort of our living room. So why spend money at the  circus? And maybe wind up with a bad seat!

There was another big reason — Cruelty! Yes, the growing clamor about the circuses abusing their animals.

Lots of animal lovers kept complaining louder and louder that circuses were abusing their animals. Abusing them horribly. Abusing all the animals. The elephants. The lions and tigers. The camels and horses and ponies. Even the  trained dogs. Even the bunny that the clown pulled out of his hat.

Some animals more than others. The poor elephants got the worst of it.

The protests became so loud and so many that they put the big and best circuses out of business.

Apparently the circus owners didn’t have the vision, the imagination to see that a circus without animals could do well.

Sure, there may have been isolated abuses. Nothing is perfect. I myself thought there was gross exaggeration.

I thought the owners and trainers and everybody else involved took good care of the animals. Loved them. Hey, they would have been stupid to mistreat their animals.

After all, the animals cost them big bucks to maintain and train. Their animals were their bread and butter. These were savvy businessmen. They weren’t idiots.

Bottom line, those animals and all the fun and pleasure they gave us were a main reason why we bought tickets.

Hey, I love animals. That’s one reason I’m a vegetarian. I don’t believe in killing animals to eat them. I hate even squishing ants when they infest my kitchen a month or so every year.

I wouldn’t support anyone or any outfit that grossly mistreats animals.

And I’ve had pets over the years for myself or our kids. A poodle once. A great big St. Bernard. Cats. A pony once. Did I have to be cruel to make them behave or do some little thing?  No, sir. How about you?

Sure, the circus people have to train their animals. The same way a farmer has to train his horse to pull the plow. Or his cows not to kick up during milking.  That isn’t abuse and cruelty.

Anyway, I loved the circus from the first time my family took me as a little kid. Took all of us kids. We all loved it. Couldn’t wait for the circus to come back to town.

Hey, I took my wife Pauline when we were dating. We went after we got married. We took our children when they came along.

And as the years went by, I continued to go to the circus, even when I was alone because there was nobody left around to take with me.

Even when I went off to Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer I went to the circus when I got the chance.

As you may know, I was 77 when I did that. And  I found that Ukrainians loved circuses.

A bit of background. Peace Corps posted me to an important city in Ukraine, Chernihiv, 300,000 people. Impressive city. I could have rented an apartment and lived by myself. That’s what most Volunteers did. Instead I chose to live with a family for a while, then another family, then another. Three in all.

Why? I felt each family became a window for me to learn  about the people and their culture and how they lived. And that’s the way it worked out.

Every spring a circus came to town and pitched its big top. And in the fall another came. They weren’t great big three-ring circuses like ours. They were one-ring circuses. But marvelous circuses.

I would attend. And I’d bring somebody from my Ukrainian family at that time. We had a great time. I have great memories of them.

One time I had to go to our Peace Corps headquarters in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Kiev is an interesting city. Magnificent. It would remind me of Paris. Ten times less expensive, by the way.

And I learned of a very big circus  Not in a big tent. It was permanent, year round in its own big building. So impressive you it could have passed as a famous opera house. A terrific circus it was.

And I learned something important. Had never thought of. Ukrainians, like people in the other countries once in the Soviet sphere, considered circus stars not just performers. They considered them artists. The clowns, the acrobats, the animal trainers. All artists. True artists. I bought that.

And on a trip to China, in fact in Shanghai, I had that same experience. Again it was in a great big, impressive, year round building of its own. With wonderful circus performers of all kinds. All thought of and respected as artists.

Well, for me, now living in Morro Bay, with those wonderful circus experiences all past tense, I have been content to live with the happy memories.

Then my daughter Monique surprised me when she called and said, “Dad, David and I are taking you to the Circus Vargas. We’ve made reservations. It’s one of your Father’s Day presents.”

“Gosh! Sounds great, Monique. Thank you, thank you. But circus what?”

“Circus Vargas. Wonderful circus! It’s been around quite a long time. Started by a man named Vargas. It plays just the western states. Terrific acts, we’ve heard.”

“Any lions? Elephants?”

“No. It did have animal acts till about 10 years ago. No more. But a great show. We were lucky to get tickets.”

Of course I was disappointed. That  wasn’t a real circus. But I didn’t want to come off as an ingrate. Monique is such a sweetheart.

“Wonderful, Monique. Please thank David. Can’t wait!”

Curious me, 10 minutes after her call, I Googled  Circus Vargas.

Well, it talked about itself in such an interesting and colorful way that I got excited that Monique and David were going to take me.

In fact, here’s what I read. I felt you’d be impressed, too. I put it in italic to make it stand out for you.

The Big One is Back with “The Greatest of Ease” bringing acrobats, daredevils and flying trapeze!

 Join us in celebrating Circus Vargas’ 50th anniversary extravaganza, an homage to the golden era of circus in America!!

All aboard our spectacular circus steam engine as we ride the railways back in time, to relive the nostalgia of yesteryear!

Marvel at the sights and sounds emanating from the big top, just as audiences did decades ago!

The hypnotic call of the Calliope, the sawdust, the sequins,the spangles! Hurry, Hurry, Hurry! Witness the unusual, the astonishing, the unimaginable! Wonder at the daring and the beauty! Experience the phenomenal, the extraordinary!

 Run away with the circus, for two unforgettable hours of nonstop action and adventure, as we transport you back through the ages of circus history and tradition!  A magnificent, mega-hit production guaranteed to thrill and enchant children of all ages …only at Circus Vargas, where memories are made and cherished for a lifetime.

 Well, we went. Very lucky. A perfect evening after a nice sunny day. Circus Vargas’ tent was huge. . The most beautiful big top I’ve ever seen. It stood out with colorful circus trucks around it. This was a big circus. It dominated a great big field. Much bigger than the circuses that came to my city in Ukraine.

We arrived early. There were already cars beyond number parked. Thank goodness there was one handicap parking spot left. Essential for me.

People were streaming in. We were lucky. We got seats with perfect views. At one point I looked around. There were at least a thousand men, women, and children here. A full house! And the roaming and rushing popcorn and fluffy candy hawkers were doing a land-office business.

But zero animal acts! Not even one with a puppy. Or a canary.  Waiting for the show to start, I wasn’t optimistic.

But know what? As one act followed another, I was having a ball. And so were Monique and David. I loved Circus Vargas, They loved it. Despite zero animals. Never thought the day would come.

The clowns were terrific. The trapeze acrobats were amazing with their split-second timing. A juggler came on who could juggle 5 balls, then 10, then 15, then 20. No way, no way could he hold them all. And he didn’t drop one!

Daredevils tiptoed along the high wire, a really high wire, even standing and balancing on one foot. Not only men. Gals, too!

One great act, then another. Then intermission.

Then the second half opened with a great big circus train engine coming right toward us, its big headlamp blinding us, a cloud of steam billowing up. It blew its huge horn and stopped. Wow!

It was towing a big freight car.  A dozen feet high, it seemed. And four daredevils appeared on top. All guys. And they began tumbling off the roof,  two from one side, two from the other, simultaneously, mind you. Then somehow, I couldn’t believe it, somehow sprang way back up to the roof of the car. Did that six times! Did they have springs in their shoes?

Next, a half-sloshed clown clumsily wiggled down into a big cannon and Boom! The cannon exploded and he got blown out of it. And down he plunked, somehow managing to land on his feet. Well, not quite. It was so, so funny. You should have heard the laughter.

Gal daredevils were doing stunts of their own. Such split-second tricks. I couldn’t help thinking that a big accident could happen. This was risky stuff.

Then a huge sphere of steel mesh was set up. Must have been 15 feet in diameter. It was easy  for us to see into it. An attendant opened a door. A guy on a jazzed up motorcycle drove in. Then another. The attendant closed the door.

The two gunned their engines and began whizzing around in the sphere.  Up, down, and around, time and again. One  guy this way, the other the opposite way. Then they stopped. Dangerous.

The door was opened again. Two more cyclists entered. Now there were four. One by one they started up their motorcycles. Suddenly all four were zooming around. In different directions! Unbelievable! Wow! I’d hate to be the dad of one of those guys. Sure, I’d be proud. But scared to death, too.

There were other stunts and acts, too. I gave you a sampling. It was a fantastic show. Delightful.

Afterward, as we all streamed out, we ran into the whole cast, assembled for a meet and greet. Every performer in the circus was there. How nice. People were taking pictures of themselves with the acrobats and clowns and trapeze artists and motorcycle daredevils. Chatting it up.

I found myself face to face with a gorgeous daredevil gal. ln a spangled silver skin-tight suit, mind you  One of the high-wire walkers. About 20 or so. And she was smiling. So friendly.

“You were terrific!” I said.  “But tell me. How did you get into this?”

“Oh, I was just a little girl.” Then added proudly, “I am eight generation in a circus family. I grew up doing this.”

I wanted to chat more, but shucks, she turned to face a fellow who was pressing to take a picture with her.

Eight generations! That had to be a hundred years traveling and performing in circuses. At least. There had to be some bad moments. An awful accident or two.  And all those years on the road.  Three days here. A week there. It seemed incredible that eight generations of people would stick to it.

Then I thought, these people are artists. Think of their drive to excel. Their dedication. Passion. Really are artists. Deserve to be regarded as artists.

Then another thought. It’s likely some of her forebears must have performed with animals. Maybe her dad and mom. Did they feel they had to be cruel to make their animals wow us?

I was sorry I didn’t get the chance to bring that up. That would have been interesting. Oh, well.

On the way home, what amazed me is that I had such a great time. Yes,  in a circus that Barnum & Bailey and even the Cole Brothers would have considered a joke. A sham.  And so many other circuses as well. With not even one elephant or bear or monkey or puppy.

I never thought this would ever happen. Yet I was very glad to have soon so many wonderful animal acts.

Anyway, I hope Circus Vargas comes back. I’d love to treat Monique and David. If it opens close to you, do treat yourself.

Now a P.S. that I must include for you.

A bad thing happened as Monique and David and I were walking out in that huge throng of people.

During the circus I had taken my phone out to snap pictures of acts. That hadn’t worked out.

Now I checked my pockets to make sure I had my phone. I did not! I double checked. What happened? I was frantic.

I told Monique and David. Immediately they pivoted around. And with me in hand, fought their way through the heavy outgoing stream of people back into the tent. Right back to where we had been sitting.

David looked under our seats. No phone. Maybe somehow it had fallen between the floorboards down onto the ground.

Well, he circled back and around. Got down on his hands and knees. And crawled his way to where we had been sitting. Very little headroom. Very dark down there. Kept feeling with his hands. No phone.

Oh, boy! I was antsy, believe me.

Without saying a word Monique pulled out her cell phone and dialed my number. David heard the call come in on my phone.  And was able to put his hand on it!

I hugged Monique. I thought that was so darn clever.  Hugged David. He tried so hard.

On the way home I thought of what a fiasco that wonderful evening at Circus Vargas would have become if I had lost my phone.I use it a hundred times of day for this and that.

As they say, all’s well that ends well.

Circus Vargas turned out to be a great and memorable Father’s Day present. To my surprise.

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