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Clifford E. Vargas, 64; Kept Circus Under Tent

September 06, 1989|ERIC MALNIC | Times Staff Writer

Clifford E. Vargas, whose belief that circuses should be in tents led him to found one of the largest circuses under canvas in the world, has died of heart failure at his Hollywood Hills home. He was 64.

A restless, hyperactive, "hands-on" entrepreneur, Vargas involved himself in every aspect of Circus Vargas, taking tickets, tending animals, counseling his employees and serving occasionally as ringmaster.

"When I started out, they knew I was inexperienced," he told an interviewer several years ago. "I had my people teach me how to do almost everything, including driving the trucks, putting up the tent and the seats, everything. . . . That way I could say, 'If the boss can do it, you can.' "

The son of Portuguese immigrants who raised him on a farm near Livermore, Vargas said his childhood was pleasant, but "isolated."

"My father and I would get up every morning at 5, milk 40 cows by hand, have breakfast, work in the fields, eat dinner at 9 and be in bed by 10," he recalled. "The next day, the routine started all over again."

At 20, Vargas left home, trying his hand at a series of odd jobs--including a stint as a Fuller Brush man--that eventually landed him, eight years later, in Chicago. One day, on a lark, he went to the circus.

"My eyes got big," he remembered later. "I was really excited."

Vargas said he pestered the owner for a week until the man finally relented and gave him a job as an advance man, handling advertising, ticket sales and other arrangements. Vargas loved the work, but there was one aspect of the business that bothered him--circuses were abandoning the "big top" because it was too expensive, relying instead on rented stadiums and auditoriums.

"The circus is a tent," Vargas said. "It was born in a tent. . . . It's not like an arena where you're 30 rows back, divorced from the show. In a tent, you're 20 feet from the performers. You can see how dangerous it is for people on the high wire and you can almost touch the animals. There's just no comparison."

In 1965, Vargas returned to California, where he worked for several small circuses while continuing to save his money for the day when he might own one of his own.

"My dad always told me, 'If you make a dollar, save 50 cents,' " he recalled. "I managed to put away quite a bit."

In 1972, Vargas used his savings to buy a controlling interest in the Miller-Johnson Circus.

"All I really got was the name, some ring curbs and seating, three trucks, some outdated electrical equipment and contracts for the rest of the year," he said. "I began acquiring animals--four elephants, some lions and ponies--and bought some trailers and rented a couple of trucks. . . . I sold my house in San Francisco to buy the first tent and the equipment needed to put it up."

Vargas' belief in the big top paid off. Today, when the three-ring Circus Vargas hits the road, the caravan can include as many as 30 tractor-trailer rigs and 58 mobile homes. As many as 150 trained animals appear in the shows, which can employ as many as 300 people.

Circus Vargas publicists say their tent--currently erected in Chicago--is the largest circus tent in the world, covering an area the size of a football field.

"I think when people come to the circus, they leave their troubles behind," said Vargas, who served as president of the company. "When it's over, they feel wonderful. It puts people in a very, very good mood. . . . There's so much going on that's fun. There's nothing bad about the circus, nothing depressing.

"They say circuses are for kids, but that's not exactly true," he added. "The bottom line is that people, when they come to the circus, become kids."

Vargas, who died Monday night, was married briefly more than 20 years ago. He leaves three brothers: Joe Marshal of Roseburg, Ore., and William Vargas and Melvin Vargas, both of whom live in Sonora, Calif., and are involved in the corporate operation of the circus.

Funeral services are pending.

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