Carson and Barnes Circus is now trouping north through California
On a cold and grey Friday morning in San Francisco at the Cow Palace while Carson & Barnes crews set up the big top, I can’t remember ever feeling as emotional about a circus as I did that day. Knowing this may be the last year for a touring American three-ring show under canvas, so many feelings welled up inside me. Perhaps I was living through my own Pittsburgh, for I thought about that day in 1956 when fans watched Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey pitch its tents for the last time. I remembered reading about the sadness they felt, the tears they shed. And I felt a rush of those same emotions myself.
Dory Miller once told me, “nobody is disappointed in the a.m.” How right he was.
I remembered helping as a kid to set up Clyde Beatty Circus when it came to Santa Rosa. I remembered getting off a bus in Petaluma a few years later, when Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros trucks were just rolling onto a grassy field. In the 1980s, I arrived on a Beatty-Cole lot early enough to enjoy the tents taking shape. And during the 1980s when I lived in Los Angeles, it was a big event for the fans to watch Circus Vargas set ups, especially at the Hollywood Bowl parking lot.
I’m not certain I ever saw a Carson & Barnes set up, I’ve usually reached their show after long walks from bus stops, too late for the morning magic. So I was surprised at how they go about erecting their big tent: The men start at one end, pushing a few side poles into place, then slip under the canvas in an almost mysteriously ritualistic fashion to give it form, one pole in and up at a time. It looked as if they were digging a fallen starry sky out of the dirt and pushing it back into place. One of them — maybe the boss man — later signaled me over to usher me through an opening in the sidewall so that I could witness the action in the near darkness. Gradually, working their way through, these determined canvas men turned a sea of flat canvas into a great waving amphitheater ...
Walking around the lot, not wanting to miss a thing, I was on my feet for five hours before deciding I should go somewhere for a bite to eat.
I marveled at how happy these Mexican circus men appeared. Happy with each other. Happy to have a job. Happy to be bringing circus day to a new town. And to think, sometimes they do this every day. No matter the crowds. No matter the weather. They are the unseen stars of the big top. Without them, the show would not go on. Maybe there should be Carson & Barnes alumni club for all the men who have ever spent time in the early morning hours spotting trucks, unloading props, driving stakes and pushing a starry canvas sky back into place ...
First posted 9.19.08