Setting up the Whirling Wheel of Death is a little like assembling a 1,500-pound erector set.
The Wheel travels in a 16-foot-long wagon in five pieces, is bolted together on the floor of the San Diego Sports Arena and is hoisted by a dozen workmen to a mid-air axle. When the spotlights go on 18 hours later, two Dutch brothers will perform acrobatic stunts on the 35-foot stainless steel spindle.
"In each city, the rigging is a little bit different," said Mike Fauls, general manager of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the past eight years. "That's the single largest piece of rigging we've got."
Early Tuesday, Faul's crews rigged the Greatest Show on Earth in San Diego in 7 1/2 hours.
"About average," according to Fauls.
The first anchor was set to hold a maze of high wires and pulleys about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, and workers strung the safety nets at 8 a.m. By the time workmen pounded fluorescent stakes for the animal tents into parking lot asphalt just after sunrise, the seven setup crews were ready for sleep or a quick trip to the beach.
It was all mapped out on a Macintosh Plus computer, which Fauls and assistant manager Mike Melssen have used for the first six months of the 50-week national tour. Eventually, they will have a file for each of 33 arenas from New York City to Casper, Wyo.
"Rigging-wise, it's pretty easy here because there's a lot of open space and steel," Melssen said. An ice rink floor and ample backstage room allow routine assembly. "We like San Diego," Melssen said, "usually because we've just come from Arizona where it's 110 degrees."
Four more equipment wagons have been added this year, and there are 1,000 costumes that must be moved.
"It's a little tough to speed things up when more is added," he said.
Besides unloading, he deals with the inspectors: insurance agents who look for loose rigs; animal advocates who check the cages, chains and food; fire officials, who assure that the sparkling "gerbs" from the human rocket and the flaming hoops are not hazardous.
Joining the circus had always been Melssen's fantasy.
"I've never had any aspirations as a performer, but I was fascinated by the business and logistical side of it," he said. "It's a never-ending battle."
Fauls was working on the setup before the circus train pulled into Old Town from Phoenix. He was on his cellular phone Monday to a Knoxville, Tenn., mechanic to arrange shipping of a new trigger for the human rocket. The fresh hay looks like straw, a hose is leaking and 37 seats will need to be moved to fit the band onto the floor; otherwise it has all gone as planned.
"I keep telling them I've seen it done quicker," Fauls said.
Eric Yaillen, regional marketing director, said all of the movers, carpenters and welders travel with the circus and build and repair every wagon, cable and float. "It's just too massive of an undertaking for local people to even contemplate," he said.
A 650-pound tiger yawns outside during setup, while five tiger cubs--weighing about 10 pounds combined--sleep at their mother's side. Serene cats, they are also "the worst-smelling animals in the circus," according to Yaillen. An acrobat balances on the prongs of a forklift, while another tries a handstand on a dolly.
Many in the 325-person troupe come to San Diego, the first stop on the West Coast, relieved to see the ocean or old acquaintances.
"This place is so far out, I may never go home," said Ester Pester, a Philadelphian who sells programs. "It's gorgeous."
"I miss this place," said Rick Lurty, who washes elephants and cuts their toenails with an extra-large cuticle knife. "I once went to Black's Beach and got burned all over."
He plans to track down his older brother at the 32nd Street Naval Station, eat a huge dinner at Fat City Restaurant Cafe and Bar, and compare techniques with elephant handlers at the San Diego Zoo.
"There's sort of a rivalry between circus people and zoo people," he said. "The circus people think the zoo people come around to find out all of our tricks, and they sometimes think we're doing the same thing, but there's really no basis for it. We learn a lot from each other."
But leisure time is limited, and crews return by early evening for opening night, which features the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe from the People's Republic of China, the Flying Vasquez trapeze family, the King Charles Troupe of basketball unicyclists and Wade Burck and his tigers.
Then, after 11 performances, the crews will pack the show back into the 44-car circus train. That will take about three hours.