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Tall Tales From the Big Top

December 09, 1986|PENELOPE McMILLAN | Times Staff Writer

They took over a back room of Philippe's, where the walls are decorated with pictures of circus performers.

They didn't look much different from other lunch-time diners packed into the sawdust-floored downtown Los Angeles eatery Monday, except for their clothes: blue elephants on a sweat shirt, black panthers running across a white shirt, a silver elephant tie clasp, clown pins.

The "Paul Eagles' Circus Luncheon Club"--about 100 animal trainers, trapeze artists, clowns--even a circus priest--was in session, following a tradition at the restaurant stretching back 40 years. Monday's meeting was the club's annual Christmas party and charity auction.

"Circus folk are a clannish lot," said the burly, white-haired actor Parley Baer, who long ago was a circus press agent. "We come down here to reminisce, to sit and lie to each other."

The club, which raises money for a free circus performed each spring for young patients at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey, is named after a Ringling Bros. advance man who started going to Philippe's each Monday for lunch in the 1940s, recalled Bill Binder, 72, the restaurant's retired owner. Other circus people--performers, vendors and fans--joined him.

"They used it as a meeting place, kind of impromptu," Binder said. "They were always looking for bookings, you know, or they'd talk circus. Paul would always be there, and he was a great guy for helping people."

Though Eagles died several years ago, club members, when they're not on the road, still meet Mondays at noon, taking over the same back table. An animal trainer occasionally brings his chimp--dressed like a person--who sits at the table and has beer and a sandwich.

The group has become such an institution at the 78-year-old restaurant across from Union Station that the owners hung members' pictures on some of the walls, and Binder each year donates the party cake, decorated with wax circus animals.

Monday's party-goers ranged from 23-year-old Disneyland clown Heide Karp to 91-year-old Abe (Korky) Goldstein, the self-described "last of the Keystone Kops." Goldstein jokingly tipped Binder a dime for bringing him some soup: "I remember when a complete dinner here cost 50 cents," he said. "Notice I took the tip," Binder, 72, retorted.

During lunch they auctioned off circus memorabilia--old programs, photographs, posters or books--among themselves, raising more than $500 for their charity circus.

"Everybody here has either been or still is in the circus or they're just circus fans," said Dave Twomey of Windsor, Calif., owner of Happytime Circus, which he described as a "dog-and-pony circus."

They included working performers like Chester Cable, who claims a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records "for juggling the heaviest object" (a 130-pound table) with his feet, and Wini McKay, a former dental assistant who attended her first lunch 15 years ago as a circus fan. One of the regulars taught her how to be a trapeze artist, she said, and she's been performing ever since.

Roman Catholic clergyman Robert McCarthy, who calls himself "the carny priest," was there, about to head back to his New York home base after spending most of the year following circuses from town to town.

One couple at the party had brought along a baby who hadn't been christened. "I would have done it right here. That's how you do it," he said, explaining his itinerant style of ministry, "but I didn't bring my equipment."

The talk ranged from news or memories of other performers, or their animals.

Clark McDermott, who now has an animal act of five white German Shepherds called "The Cold Nose Five," said he'd been in the business since leaving the Navy in 1946, training sea lions, bears, elephants, and horses before settling on canines.

Who was the easiest to train, he was asked. "Bears and elephants," he replied.

And the dumbest? "Me."

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