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Bob on the Spot : Bob Davis and Family Have Their Own Special Act: Dry-Cleaning Circus Costumes


ANAHEIM — Bob Davis, like the circus, has come to town.

As his Ford van circles down into the bowels of Anaheim Arena, a hanger carrying the ringmaster's jacket screeches against a row of flashy showgirl outfits. Davis points out the driver's window at the attractions, sounding more like a Jungle Cruise guide than a humble businessman with a knack for drapes and water stains.

"There's the chimpanzee trailer. Hey, see, there's the baboon trailer," he says with a tad too much glee for a guy on the job.

Usually his work consists of extracting Cabernet from crepe blouses, smoking stains from curtains, that sort of thing. Today, we're talking the big daddy of stains: blood on a lion tamer's costume. Davis got it out, natch.

That's what you do when you're the local dry-cleaner to the circus.

Davis steers toward an arena loading bay, hauling loud clown duds, the 16-foot-long satin pants of the guy on stilts, the glittery get-ups of the elephant riders (with padded seats)--about 800 articles of clothing in all.

Since the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus pulled in to Los Angeles and until its train pulls out of Anaheim Sunday for Fresno, Davis and his family will be cleaning everything but a few hats for the 300-company circus, plus the uniforms of concessionaires.

"Of course," he says, perfectly seriously, "we don't do the clown shoes or anything."

Just about everything else worn at show time, though, gets the special treatment at his family's 42-year-old Swiss Cleaners in Long Beach, where Davis' father, 79, still delivers to longtime customers ("We can't get him out of the truck," notes Davis).

"I'm a kid at heart, and I have such a good time when I come down here with the circus people anyway," Davis adds. "It is what we do for a living."


It is only hours before opening night. Backstage, performers are resting or watching TV in their dressing room trailers while the support staff goes about preparing for show time.

Out from behind the fabric curtains of a clown alley dressing room, circus wardrobe manager Jafka Boyd, 27, emerges to inspect the freshly cleaned arrivals. She puts out a cigarette and greets Davis warmly. Since they met during the making of the "American Gladiators" TV show (she managed wardrobe, Davis cleaned it), the two have developed a fond working relationship.

"He does good work," Boyd says with just a touch of her New Zealand accent left, "and you can really tell he likes it, because he hangs around back here after his delivery and talks."

James Chareppel, 37, head of men's wardrobe, chats with Davis as they unload racks of costumes from the back of the Swiss Cleaners Econoline. He inspects the diamond-pattern shirts and wacky striped pullovers.

The circus, he says, "usually uses dry-cleaners they've been using year after year, although sometimes they use the phone book and try and find the best deal they can if the regular one falls through. There are so many different fabrics, some places don't want the trouble.

"We've had kind of mini disasters, (where) a costume was ruined, but we were able to get a replacement. That's why we like to get the costumes early: so we can check everything as soon as possible."

So elaborate are some of the outfits that buttons and epaulets "and those colonel doo-dads" have to be removed and reattached with each cleaning.

Still, the costumes get cleaned about once a week, unless some "emergency" arises and they go out twice, Chareppel said.

Because of the number of them, and the detail work involved, it is sometimes difficult to find a cleaner willing to do the circus outfits. "They don't want the responsibility."

Davis agrees. That's how Swiss Cleaners got the Ringling Bros. business. No sentimental story here about the next best thing to running away to join the circus.

"It's not that colorful, I'm sorry to say. This other dry-cleaner didn't want to do it anymore and recommended us," Davis says.


With 6,000 square feet, his family's dry-cleaners has plenty of room for its regular business plus the short-term infusion of 800 garments that need to be turned around in a day. Because its meat and potatoes is drapery cleaning and delivery, the family already has the wherewithal to ferry huge loads such as the circus ensembles.

"What can I say? It's pretty good for business to do the circus," Davis added. The weekly cleaning bill, Chareppel said, can be as high as $2,000, depending on the town.

Off the rack comes David Lerible's black-checked clown pants, the lion tamer's red jacket with spangles and sequins, and, finally, stilt clown Dave Dodera's royal blue jacket with flashy silver stars and five-feet tails.

The circus pecking order is not defined just by who gets the most spacious dressing room or the fattest paycheck, either.

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