A Real Circus Has to Smell Like One

(This essay appeared in 1990 in The Beach Reporter. Ringling Bros. just this week announced it is closing down, but Circus Vargas appears to still be going strong. I don’t have any desire to see a circus now, as I know the animals lead mostly hellish lives, but I’m glad I have the memory of going to them as a child and as a parent.)

Laaaddeeezz and gentlemen… We live in a time when we have seen a man walk on the moon. Hollywood has outdone itself entertaining us with the most outrageous car chases, the most fiery explosions, the biggest stars.

Then why is it that with all this glitzy entertainment at our fingertips, we still turn once a year to one of the oldest forms of entertainment – the circus? Long before there were movie theaters, television, even before radio, circuses were one of the big events of the year for family entertainment. And judging from last week’s crowds at Circus Vargas, the circus is still the greatest show on earth.
Actually, Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Circus claims to be the greatest show on earth, but I am here to tell you that Circus Vargas is the real circus. Ringling Bros. has become a Hollywood version of a circus. It’s held in sports arenas or coliseums, it costs $60 for a family of four in the cheap seats, and you can barely smell the elephant poo. I think they may actually hire people to follow the animals around with Lysol. The women performers all look like Miss America, and the men like professional bodybuilders.

Lest I seem to be knocking Ringling Bros., I really don’t mean to. We enjoyed their circus. It was spectacular. It reminded me of the 1984 L. A. Olympics. Glitz, glitz, and more glitz.

So then why does my family like Circus Vargas better? Maybe because it’s held under a real Big Top tent, and maybe because it’s a local affair. Maybe because they give out coupons for discount seats, maybe because you can smell the elephant poo from a mile away. Maybe because when you’re in the tent for the big finale, with all the animals and several thousand strangers who have been sweating heavily for two hours in 90 degree weather, you don’t notice the elephant poo anymore.

Lest you think this circus is a bargain, let me tell you what we spent (and I brought my own sandwich). We opted for “preferred seating” ($36 for two adults, kids were free). Such a deal. We avoided the snake tent (yes, there really is a snake tent) where you can pay an extra $1 to see the biggest, most ferocious living reptiles. We went straight to the giant trampoline bounce ($1.50 per child for 5 minutes). On to the pony rides ($2 per child for another 5 minutes). We hadn’t even gotten in the door yet.

If you don’t like children, you should never go to the circus. At least with Ringling Bros., you get your own seat. Here you end up elbow to elbow with every sweaty kid whose main activity is to spill food and kick the backs of those sitting in front of them. I left with Sno-Cone juice all over my body, and popcorn in my underwear.

There are vendors selling every kind of junk circus toy in the world, and also trying to take souvenir photos of you and your family (lots more moolah).

But the show is wondrous, because you are right there. Under the big top, you can see the expression on the faces of the performers. You are right there with them as they perform their “death-defying acts.” The girls in Circus Vargas are fleshier and flashier than Ringling Bros., and a lot more flesh shows. The dads in the audience were mesmerized, particularly by two young women in sequined bikinis with plumed headbands, who did strange gyrations on an elephant.

The action is nonstop and intense, and worth it when you look around and see smiles on all those sticky, sweaty faces. It’s like nothing else in the world today, unless you live a a small town Midwestern that has those traveling carnivals that appear every summer. But that’s another story.

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