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One Day In The Life Of The Circus

July 29, 1985|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Quite frankly, "The Greatest Show on Earth" doesn't look like much the morning of an opening-night performance.

All the glitter and glamour are still under wraps. The indoor arena is deserted; the outdoor tents are filled with yawning animals; the costumes are not yet unpacked, and most of the performers are away sightseeing in town.

Even the usually resplendently costumed Gunther Gebel-Williams, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' No. 1 attraction, has been stripped of superstar trappings. Dressed in his work denims, the world's most famed animal trainer is grooming and watering the elephants and horses.

Hardly the circus of our dreams.

That's the way it was Tuesday morning at the Long Beach Arena as the Ringling circus went about setting up shop for a six-day run. (The Long Beach Arena engagement ended Sunday. The show moves to the Anaheim Convention Center Tuesdayfor a run through Aug. 6, and then to the Los Angeles Sports Arena Aug. 9 through 18).

But in a matter of hours, the Ringling circus had become its usual bedazzling self in time for its 7:30 p.m. opener in Long Beach. The show was unwrapped and unraveled, all the rigging and props in place, all the animals groomed, all the performers costumed in glowing violets, greens and golds.

Apparently, the transformation never fails to amaze Ringling general manager Bob MacDougall, the chief operations overseer. "Look, we take an empty building like this, come in with 350 of our people, plus tons of equipment, and set it all up in six to eight hours. Then we tear it all down in two (hours), and move on to the next town.

"Try doing that 33 times a season. If we're lucky, we stay a week in one place. But sometimes it's two towns the same week. Try that for a living."

Clearly, it's not a life style for everyone. An 11-month, cross-country schedule of 33 cities and 535 performances with infrequent one- or two-day breaks takes its toll, especially among the work crews, where only 20% of the men stay on for another season.

But there are people still drawn by the mystique of the circus. The Ringling clown corps is filled with many graduates of Ringling's own clown college in Florida. The "Satin" duo, Pa-mela Hernandez and Denise Aubrey, are an example. Both Los Angeles-raised and one-time dancers with a Bob Hope USO troupe, they joined Ringling seven years ago, starting out as showgirls. Three years ago, the duo won featured-performer status--the first black aerial act ever presented by Ringling.

"Pa-mela and I used to work in offices. You know, the usual routine," Aubrey said. "We love this (circus) life; you get used to the road. We're just not cut out for the 9-to-5 life."

Apparently, this is a good time to join. Despite competition from television, video, rock concerts and--especially in Southern California--theme parks, Ringling officials boast of the best attendance in years. Combined annual attendance for Ringling's two touring units is 8 million, officials said.

And, they said, Ringling is giving what most Americans still want in a circus: graceful derring-do, glossy spectacle and shameless hype on the grandiose scale. The staging cost for the "Red Unit," the contingent now touring California, is $2.5 million.

Although Ringling abandoned the outdoor big-tent circuit and turned to the indoor arenas nearly 30 years ago, it remains the biggest regular traveling show in the country. (Other circuses still play under the canvas, however, including Circus Vargas, Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. and Carson & Barnes.)

In the heyday of the big-tent era, Ringling traveled in a 100-car train. The entry into each town was always triumphantly grand: a blocks-long parade with scores of performers and animals in extravagantly decorated wagons. The raising of the immense tent took 1,500 men, including scores of workers recruited locally, plus 80 work elephants.

Consider the Red Unit's arrival in Long Beach (San Diego had been the first California stop, a six-day engagement that ended July 21).

The train is now 42 cars, but still carrying food and living quarters for its human and animal passengers. The animals' menu alone is stupendous--a weekly order that includes 350 pounds of meat, 400 pounds of carrots, 150 loaves of bread and 11 tons of hay.

The parade from the rail yard to the arena is now only a blocklong line of elephants, horses, camels and llamas, followed by just two carloads of clowns and showgirls. To raise the riggings inside an arena, only 65 men are needed, all of them part of the traveling contingent.

During the current trek, the Red Unit has been involved in controversies over animal care.

In Phoenix, the unit's performances were picketed by animal-rights groups who questioned whether the circus was giving the animals proper treatment. In New York, protesters had called for a boycott of Ringling because, they contended, the circus' latest super attraction, a goat-like animal dubbed the "living unicorn," appeared to be a surgically enhanced fake.

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