Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Fairgrounds of Memories ...


Beyond the creamy bark of Eucalyptus under a cool April sun, I glance down upon a grassy open field where once upon a spring I helped set up the Clyde Beatty Circus. Upon it now are a trio of tots chasing after a ball while a father figure looks on. I like this setting most of all when I have it all to myself, for then my boyhood memories are pure, unmolested by the passage of time...

I am sitting with laptop at a picnic table where people never come except for when the Sonoma County Fair is here in late July. In my boyhood, the field at my feet was an open lot across the street, later annexed to the fair. Up here once stood an old shed filled with abandoned metal strips that I collected for model building.

Once upon another day when Carson & Barnes played the same space, late friend Hugo Marquardt and I hit the fairgrounds mutually intent on crashing a circus. Hugo made laughing reference to an old CFA slogan that went “We pay as we go.” Said Hugo, his hands mimicking applause, “We clap as we go!” And he laughed. Sure enough, we did what young boys once did ...

The fairgrounds is so much better when the fair is not here. Before an ugly elevated freeway appeared at the front side, there was a median of dirt and weeds, and on it one July evening stood a carnival wagon of quaint intrigue. What was it for, I wondered? It had just been tractored out from the railroad crossing at Sebastopol Avenue where Foley & Burke were running wagons across flats, down the runs and onto the streets. That wagon, waiting to be spotted, would the next morning be unfolded out and up into the Thimble Theatre Fun House — I fell in love with its spooky walkthrough upstairs, its grinding old shuffle boards below. Now sadly it rests in semi-neglect under a back shed at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

So many summers ago, when the first two races were the trotters all harnessed up, my favorite dirt derby, so much more dramatic at the start as sulky drivers whipped and gripped and sped into positions behind the extended bars off an accelerating white Cadillac, which whizzed suddenly away ... “And they’re off!”

And big burly lovable John Strong entertained as a free attraction in his little tent, managing to make a shoestring show seem like the most important event of the day ... "Hi, ya folks! Gosh, look who I see out there in my audience! David, stand up!"

In outline, the fairgrounds has changed little over the years. A pair of old hog barns recharge my memories with unmistakable smells, with thick splintery boards bearing white chalky paint and rusty hinges. Strange how the slightest whiff can revive a vivid feeling you can never put into words. Inside the Grace Pavilion, where gadget vendors still hawk in late July, the circus many years ago stole my heart away when Polack Bros. came to town. Francis Brunn and La Norma and the great Wallendas were there. The Shriners were there in their tall red hats, free passes in hand, looking for kids like me to make happy. Through a door suddenly opened to me, a world of spangled wonder and magic came alive...

Trot, please, trot your horse...

Across the way now in the Lyttle Cow Palace, an Arabian Horse meet is on, and they are as lost in time as I feel. And up beyond the cow barns, there is the old farm machinery building, called that initially until it soon became the flower show building. During the winters when I lived only a few blocks away on Brown Street, I loved bicycling out, hoping the doors to the building would be open, which they never were, and peeking through the cracks to study the colors and shapes of Foley & Burk wagons, all tucked away in off-season hibernation. The one I most wanted to see was the Thimble Theatre, my pet.

The grassy field is now vacant ..

Walk around the track at the normal trot...

Once upon a boyhood, I’d gaze out upon the race track surrounded with Monterrey Cypress in the still of a muted blue January day and try imaging what Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey would look like were it to pitch its beautiful blue big top right out there in the middle. What a spectacle!

We will take a lunch break at the end of this class...

So many quiet memories on a perfect day at the fairgrounds. If only I had the place completely to myself ... If only time could be turned ...

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