PICO RIVERA — The lion had his mouth around Alan Gold's head and the massive cat shook back and forth violently as 18 other lions and tigers watched.
"Just kidding," Gold said as he pulled his head from the lion's mouth.
Gold, "the country's only heavy-metal lion trainer," was busy last week preparing his act for Circus Vargas' 17th season. He and about 40 other performers, trainers and workers have set up their winter quarters in a dirt field alongside the Pico Rivera Sports Arena. They're whipping their acts and equipment into shape for performances across the United States and Canada.
While the circus has performed in Pico Rivera for years, this is the first time it has spent the off season here. "We've always found them to be a welcome tenant to our city, and the fact that they're staying here longer is fine," said William Kent, director of parks and recreation.
Circus Vargas pulled into its winter quarters Nov. 5, and will leave three days before the 10-month season starts in Yuma, Ariz., on Jan. 10. Many of the circus' 125 performers take the opportunity to travel and visit family during the off months. They'll join the circus soon, said Gail Wood, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based Circus Vargas.
"Pico Rivera's very convenient for us," Wood said. "Los Angeles was where the circus was born."
Curious residents have appeared to try and catch a glimpse of the performers, but they have posed no problem for the circus, Wood said. No previews for Pico Rivera residents are planned, but the circus will return to the Sports Arena for a March 6-9 engagement.
Gold, who joined the circus last month, is using the Pico Rivera camp to work on a 15-minute show that will bring about five lions and 15 tigers into the same cage. He will appear under the Big Top in the black leather uniform of a punk rocker, crack a whip and command the cats to jump through hoops and over each other, and to waltz and walk on their hind legs.
The 29-year-old trainer said he is trying to create one of the bigger, if not the biggest, cat act in the world. Gold acknowledges the occupational hazard of working in a 48-foot-diameter wire arena with Siberian tigers that weigh up to 800 pounds and lions that weigh almost as much.
"Instinct is telling tigers they want nothing to do with lions," he said. "The cats are so afraid the lions are going to jump down on their backs."
'I Hope I Get Out Alive'
Gold has already quelled one brawl without incident, and one tiger that harbors a major dislike for lions was temporarily banned from the three-a-day practice sessions.
"Every time I go into the cage I hope I get out alive," said Gold, a father of two who once spent six months in a wheelchair after he was mauled by a tiger.
As Gold worked on his act in one of three blue, red and yellow tents mushrooming from the dirt lot, other performers watched television under a tent housing 10 elephants, numerous horses, camels and other exotic animals.
Welders worked metal gates and framing with spikes of blue flame while a clown talked to a showgirl and an elephant trainer took a horse out for a ride. Props were being painted. New costumes would be made, and the Big Top, which covers an area the size of a football field, would be sewn and patched.
Small Town With Cages
The performers and workers have created a small town of motor homes, tractor trailers and animal cages.
George Clyatt, 27, probably better known as Captain Buddy the purple clown, is using the time to sew new costumes. He also tutors the preschool-age children of circus performers.
"This year I wanted to stay with the show and help with odds and ends," said Clyatt, who juggles clubs, rings and balls at least once a week to keep in practice. He's one of about 10 performers who make up Circus Vargas' "Clown Alley."
Elephant trainer Ted Polke, 30, said one of his most important jobs during his two months in Pico Rivera is exercising the elephants. Colonel Joe is the largest. He's 22 years old and weighs 11,000 pounds.
"You have to keep them moving, keep them limber, and (there's) a lot of work with a shovel," said Polke, one of seven elephant trainers with the circus.
Some of the elephants stand on their heads. Others stand on their hind legs. Colonel Joe will pick Polke up in his tusks and lie on the trainer during performances.
Polke's not scared.
"Anything that weighs 10,000 pounds can be dangerous, but they're all smart and have strong personalities," he said.
Trudy Strong, who joined the circus for the upcoming season, just about has her 10 Dalmatians in shape. They'll waltz, jump through hoops and walk on their hind legs.
"It's just the finishing touches of making sure they do it all the time," said Strong, a 45-year-old, third-generation circus performer. "It's all repetition when you're training an animal."
The performers looked forward to the new season, smiles and applause, and the look and feel of new places.
"I know for that 10 minutes people aren't worrying about whether a bill is paid," said Gold, the lion trainer. "And there's nothing better than seeing little kids' faces scared and then elated (that) I survived."