Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Catching Cliff Vargas on a Good Vargas Day

Of all the big top bosses I have observed, the most exciting figure among them, by far, would have to be Cliff Vargas.  His unpredictable moods combined with his relentless drive to make his circus the very biggest and best is what enamored him, most will agree, of virtually everybody in the circus community.

How I miss just being able to spot him slipping across the lot, like he did that rainy morning at Farmers Market in L.A as the big top was rising, accompanied by Joe Muscarello. Vargas looked weary and worn down, but a man who would not stop.  Within several years he would no longer be with us, another tragic victim of AIDS.

He could be boyant; he could be nasty.  Somehow, his greater desire to deliver trumped the many moods when "Mr.V.", as they called him, came onto the lot.

Southern Californias will fondly remember the show opening in the Hollywood Bowl Parking lot on Highland.  What glamorous openings they were.  One night, just returning from the Bay Area, I made a mad dash over to the lot, intent on taking in the show again.  In fact, I would usually see the show more than once during its golden years in the mid-1980s, they were that good.    "Sold out" a man standing near the tent told me.  The only other time I can recall being turned away at a circus was at the Moscow Circus in Oakland in 1967.

Here is Don Marcks, in a letter to me dated May 18, 1983:

"I then spent the next two days with Circus Vargas and do you know what.  The attitude was different than it has been and in fact the people seemed different and so I enjoyed it.  Was in Wally Naughtin's trailer when there was a knock on the door and in walked Vargas.  He acted like he was happy to see me.  Another time he was going through the backyard and came over to tell me that he had been selling tickets and said, do you know those people who buy the tickets are crazy.  He was certainly in a good mood. To say he has a good show, etc. is to repeat so many others but it is true."


Harry Kingston said...

Good morning Dave,
What a master showman Mr. V was.
I got to see it when it was Miller-Johnson and then Circua Vargas.
He treated us fans royaly and I have just lots of praise for him.
I helped all his engagement directors when they came here and we plastered the area with posters.
Mr. V surprised me one night at the opening performance as he called me out into center ring and preented me with plaque thanking me for all the help.
One cold January day Mr. V was having a party and I got to see him in his full length mens mink coat.
We got Circus Vargas every year here in Beaumont, Texas and the first year they had full houses for 5 days and Mr. V was in tears over all the large crowds.
I worked at a local CBS tv station and I got them plenty of coverage and different stories no one else got being a circus fan.
Mr. V called me at the tv station and said Harry I need a favor, ok Cliff what. I need a complete set of poles for my circus tent. I got a local excellent machine shop to build them for the circus.
Dave if you knew Bill Biggerstaff up front even though it was a sell out you would have goten in.
One rainy cold October day waiting out front Mr. V spotted us and took us on into the tent and put us in the Presidents box.
How can you ever forget an act of kindness like that.
Many great memories from Circus Vargas and a one of a kind showman like Mr. V.
Gone but not forgotten as he showed Amercia what a first class tented circus was like.
Harry in Texas

Jack Ryan said...


My favorite Vargas story:
One day we met for lunch at a restaurant on Ventura Blvd. in L.A. We had just ordered and, suddenly, Cliff got a panicked look on his face.
"Be right back," he yelled as he rushed out of the restaurant.
Moments later he was back, with a package in his hand. "Whew. I left $30,000 in cash in the car. And, it was unlocked."


Showbiz David said...

Thanks for sharing, Harry and Jack.

I imagine many people out there have colorful Cliff Vargas stories.

How I miss the drama of his very existence! The man was a circus. So totally unlike, I'd guess, any other circus owner before or since his time.