Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: Ringling Versus Vargas in Los Angeles ... Yes, Once Upon a Season!

 Top of the big tops in a golden age: A rare shot of Johnny Pugh, Kenneth Feld, and Cliff Vargas in the 1980s.

Cliff Vargas, surely on the artistic front, reached his own apex in the mid 1980s with some great shows, and the gala openings in the parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl in the spring were glamorous, very glamorous.

The tent was often near full or full.  One time, coming back from the Bay Area, I hurried over to see if I could take in another performance, circa 1985; the show was "sold out" that night.

Rumors flew from time to time that the Felds wanted to buy out Vargas, that his circus was cutting into their own business.  I don't know how true that was, but during this heyday for Mr. V's big top, he did some fabulous business in his extended spring run through So Cal dates.

On bus kiosks all over the region were large lavish Circus Vargas posters featuring a classic image of a roaring tiger.  

From Don's letter to me, dated April 20, 1983, only six days following my big move, from Oakland down to Hollywood:

"Just received your note and was nice to hear from you and hope you will like L.A. ...

Onto the good Stuff:

"I received a letter today from Eddie Howe and he tells me that the rumor is Ringling will not play California this year.  That they will come in early in 1984 to beat Vargas.  Yet the latest route card from them shows their first date or two as per usual in Calif., so I guess he is wrong.  Seems to me that he gets things mixed up at times."

The Felds DID on occasion fear Circus Vargas enough to blast it in large news ads, as witness this one taken out in a Chicago paper in advance of its own date there:

"Wait for the Big One!
Accept no Imitations!
Save your money for the very best!
Why settle for paying more for less show and trudging
across a dusty/muddy lot to swelter under a canvas tent
in the hot and humid July-August heat sitting on a hard bench??

This ad was taken out -- guess what season?  Yes, 1983.  Eddie Howe I think was onto something.

What exciting times those were!  ... The Golden Age of the1980s ... Vargas offered a viable choice to the Big Show.  At one point, he had a five or six piece band of highly gifted musicians, and, given modern sound system technologies for sending their score through the tent, they made a dazzling impact.  They rode a varied chart, rich in Latin, Broadway, a little old fashioned circus, and big band jazz.   They gave the show a strong compelling pulse.

Thank you, Mr. V.!

 Cliff Vargas and Sandy Dobritch, in the early years.  I think we all miss Mr. V.  Photos Courtesy, Tegge Circus Archives, Baraboo


Harry Kingston said...

I had always heard of rumors of Ringling buying Vargas but it never came true.
But another interesting event happened years ago. Circus Vargas was playing Lake Charles, Louisiana and we drove over to see them. It was at a rodeo coliseum with a high ceiling and Vargas had there center poles et up inside.
Running around and taking photos and guess who I ran into, Johnny Pugh. He had driven from Mobile to Lake Charles. Now what was he doing there.
In later years he told me he was going to buy Circus Vargas. The deal was set and Johnny told Cliff don't you die on me and that is what happened. So the deal never went through.
Mr. V was a first class showman and a great 3 ring circus he had.
He filled the tent many many times here in Beaumont, Texas. I had many a great time when the show was here and helped them with what ever they needed.
Even helped Mike Gorman arrow the show, get Pat Anthony get cat food.
I helped every engagement director Mr. V had.
Gone but not forgotten and what a circus it was and to have Col Joe right over my head in the Presidents box.
Harry in Texas

Showbiz David said...

Very interesting, Harry. I have to assume the only way Cliff would have considered selling was a sure knowledge that his days were numbered. As I understand, he really died of AIDS, and at that tragic time, the disease was a near-certain death sentence. Very sad, so many talents were lost.
Col. Joe, what a great performing elephant -- or, at least, elephant act!

John Moss said...

During that era, I remember hearing Letterman refer to a "Vargas midget". His comment included no explanation of the name Vargas. The Vargas name was on its way to becoming a household word.