Circus is a Group Effort

As I work on my current project, a contemporary romance set on a circus, I would like to share some of the circus lingo and processes that go into putting on a one-ring show in the United States.  I will be sharing this over the next few posts of my blog.

Back in 2006 and 2007, I did considerable research on circuses, including purchasing a pretty extensive library of books, conducting interview with performers and working men, and attended the tent raisings that occur the morning of or the day before a circus performs.  The amount of coordination that goes into simply putting up a tent was really a surprise to me.  A big tent can be raised by a good tent crew in two hours – including getting the tent stakes into the ground, getting the poles up, stretching the canvas into place, putting up the side walls, and tying everything down once it is done.  This takes a massive group effort, but when I say “massive,” I mean the effort, and not necessarily the group.  A single-ring tent like the one for the Kelly Miller show (photo above is from that circus, credit me!) takes about 2 dozen men to put up, if that.  There are no “exclusive” jobs, either.  The same guys pounding in tent stakes by hand (see picture above) are also stretching the tent out, fixing tears in the canvas, tying things down, getting the seat wagons in and set up, blocking out the ring and putting up the ring curb, getting the sawdust down, putting up the fencing to guide visitors,  moving props into place, and many other tasks.  During the shows, many of these men are also helping to set up, stabilize, or take down rigging, moving and removing props to their positions, picking up trash, guarding the edges of the tent so that people don’t sneak in.  The minute the show is over, they are striking the seats and fences, and loosening the anchor ropes so they can get the tent down and packed into a truck before midnight.

Just so they can do it all again the next day.

It is arduous, physical work, but takes a finesse that would belie the mere grunt work of it all.  No one works harder on circus than the working men.  And hard-working men play hard, too.  Older stories talk about fights among workingmen, drunkeness and carousing at the local bars, getting left behind because they are hungover, or being tossed from the circus for being drunk on duty.  Makes me think of the old ways of the cowboys out west.  Work hard, play hard.  And those stores are true, and of course, just because we think we are more civilized now doesn’t mean that these things still don’t occur.  But in ways, you can see why it is the way it is.  Workingmen have the hardest jobs, the messiest jobs, and the least amount of rest of anyone on the circus.  And they aren’t receiving the premium play that the performers or bosses are.

When you go to a circus, you don’t see any of this.  You see the magic of the circus – the red white and blue tent, the bright lights, the performers in sequins, the gasps that accompany the daredevil acts, the beauty and grace of the show girls, the immensity of the Percheron horses in the Liberty Act.  In the background, the workingmen are what is keeping the whole thing together.  Remarkable, isn’t it?

Build Your Circus Vocabulary:

Patch:  Almost always a man, and the troubleshooter on the circus.  He deals with legal issues, permits, bribing or convincing of local officials (yes, it happens), smoothing over any issues with the towns or cities, and bailing circus people out of jail when they go on a bender or get caught grifting a guest.

Townie or Towner: These are the local people.  Usually said as a derogatory term for someone that has caused trouble or potentially will cause trouble. Circus people are always suspicious of towners.

House: the crowd in the tent.

Mud Show: These are smaller circuses that travel the country by truck.  Originally a term used for horse-drawn wagon shows.  They performed in whatever area they could rent from a nearby town – a field, an old fairgrounds, along the tracks, wherever.  When it would rain, they would find themselves in a mud pit, and getting out was an ordeal (still is).  Since most circuses these days are mud shows, it really refers to those not set up in an arena and rarely on pavement, and who struggle in spring with storms and the mud pits that are caused by them.

Seat Wagon: Portable seating, usually on wheels, where the bleachers fold up like origami so it becomes a trailer that can be pulled along behind a truck.  They are driven into the tent after it is set up and then pulled open to provide off-ground seating.

Tear Down: What happens immediately after a show.  The tent is taken down quickly and props and poles are stowed.  The quickest tear down I ever saw was about 90 minutes, in the dark, with a spitting rain.  They don’t mess around, and everything has its place.

Do you have a circus story you’d like to share?  Or a favorite circus act you like to see?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


3 thoughts on “Circus is a Group Effort

  1. I loved the Cole Brothers circus–a real “mud show” that used to set up on a baseball field in my town. I once got to ride an elephant (Breaks my heart that Ringling was forced to drop not only the elephants but the entire circus.)

  2. Florida is the winter home of the circus. We have the museums and schools. There are large communities of retired and training performers. I can say without doubt, the animals were well taken care of. Losing the traveling shows not only steal the experience from kids all over the country, but cuts away a large piece of Americana. I love the circus.

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