Eight hours later, at 30 minutes of dawn, the llamas and horses are led into their trailers by performers and circus hands simultaneously working on their first coffees, the first cigarettes, the first coughs of a new day.
No matter their titles, whether performer or concession operator, everybody slogs.
Johnson--a classic of divided loyalties in a Phoenix Suns sweat shirt and a pair of Boston Celtics pants--stacks bleachers. Wendany rakes pony manure from the flattened grass where the petting zoo had been. Volponi stabs with a spiked pole to clear the pristine Plumas County Fairgrounds of the last popcorn box and shred of litter.
Advance man Dennis Egan is already ahead of the show, 50 miles down the road and on the outskirts of Portola. He staples paper arrows to phone poles that will lead the circus trucks to an abandoned baseball field, the show's al fresco home for another 24 hours.
He squirts the dusty, scrubby five acres with spray paint, marking the precise points for the big top, its steel stakes, auxiliary tents, the office trailer and performers' vehicles.
"Every day it moves, every day it stays the same," says Egan.
By 10 a.m. every truck, trailer, car and motor home has made it. Barbara has helped tug the big top aloft. The ring curbs are in place. Lights, trapezes, bleachers, props and a stage for a lone keyboardist have been set and tested.
Bill Burger, beard pointed, mustache waxed, is in his red and yellow box office with early tickets to sell. He's also checking last night's take in an ordinary vinyl notebook. One day, owner Johnson might break down and buy a computer for the accounting.
Volponi is in costume, up on his stilts and talking down to a cluster of grade schoolers who are fascinated to silence.
"How many of you have tickets for the circus?" Volponi asks. Fifty hands are raised. Some belong to teachers. Such is the strength of anticipation.
Noon: Performers are napping or visiting antique shops in town or cooking early lunches of pork chops and gravy or making harness repairs.
3:30 p.m: The show's portable generator clacks on. Costumes are prepared. Muscles are stretched. Makeup begins. Barbara is hosed down one more time.
5:30 p.m: Show time. Music rises and a spotlight falls.
It finds Johnson in a high silk hat, ruffled shirt and spangled morning coat. His baritone is contrived and amplified and stirs the soul of Portola.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages . . . "