beardy me & Ole Number 21

bringing the seat wagons in

Real Life Under The Big Top
by Peter Montalbano

Author's note: this was first published in "The Valley Voice," in San Geronimo Valley, Marin County, in late 1974. I got a lot of grief back then for my stream-of-consciousness and "no capitals" style, but, actually, it was just a different use of capitals. I was way into e.e. cummings in those days, and finding my own voice, too, and, what the heck, I still kinda like it! Dear reader, please bear with me on this one. Also some of my circus colleagues took me to task for being too negative, but really, I didn't mean it to come across that way. The experience was one of the great ones of my life. . . and maybe part of why I never HAVE quit show biz!

my pals Honky & Ed
The fire-eating trumpet section


      there it was, true as life, in the chronicle help-wanteds last april: "MUSICIANS to travel with tented CIRCUS. . . 1 Trumpet, 1 Trombone, for appt. call Mr. Cash. "DIG THIS," spoke my mind. i, fish in one of the more stagnant pools of magical marin: the unemployed high school teacher, substituting for years in these oh so white suburbs, waiting for an opening. "but teachers are getting laid off, not hired, dontcha know?" a little weary of the 6:30 AM phone by my ear, of being the jibe & jive target for bored rich kids with authority hangups--wasn’t i looking for a chance to play my horn and get paid, and, hell, how many tunes did the Street Choir use me on, anyhow? I’d been talking about running away with the circus before the ad appeared. time was ripe. so i dashed off to martinez and contracted myself to George Matthew’s Great London Circus and a seven-month flashview of ‘74 underbelly america as one of its more anonymous entertainers: a truck-driving trumpeter. a lark, an adventure, a mad meditation. a scary commitment to long hours, low pay, and loneliness. yeah. Real Life. the circus, Real Life? herbie fakefalling off the "silver strand," convulsing dazedly on the mat, but rising with a limp to the cheers of hoi polloi, waving off the mock concern of a pompous ringmaster to climb his steel platform, tiptoe out & jump over the proffered backside of his lovely assistant (mr. latino will now attempt this most difficult feat once again), fakequavering spastically but this time bringing it off, then turning, grabbing the wire between his feet and spinning full circle round to end on top, skip to the other platform, leap down & rush (with no limp) to the ring curb, palms up as an excited suppliant to shouts and heartthrobs from the crowd--this, repeated, on occasion, thrice daily, real life? well, realer than things had been for me here--not in the way an office worker’s daily shift or washing dishes is real, though there was something of that in it, too. but most definitely Real Life in the sense Tom Wolfe used to describe Ken Kesey’s party with the Hell’s Angels: unavoidably, inexorably there, impressing itself on your senses and demanding that you cope.
      drive till you see things stop run around the truck drive till dawn crash in yer tent till you miss breakfast wake to gas engines smashing stakes pumping water pumping gas generating hit it hit it hit it set it up freeze yer ass try to practice try to even think try to find a laundromat or someplace to wash the sweat off yer arms & neck. snow in pocatello, bozeman, laramie. lions roar mid the enormous rankness of elephant piss. bruise yer face blowing 4, maybe 6 hours real hard & real fast. teardown drive till dawn, every day someplace new but never new conversation in the cookhouse (sometimes i talk real loose but never FOUL like my pals the grunts) walk 3 miles for a beer or some real food then back for the show. tear down. what? no show? yeah hit it hit it hit it they won’t give us no permits cuz a whut hapind last year. hit it hit hey the pigs got joe the gas man he wuz drunk tryin tuh push some kinda dope on the shurrifs wife hee hee. only 120 miles tonight & hot showers at FOOD skelly TRUCK/AUTO and now the heat months of it 105 in wichita 97 in louisville: no days off in 3 weeks and there’s gotta be a sucker born every time they say hit it hit it hey why is there only guys on this tour anyhow gonna be a horny summer, huh? nahh. everybody’ll just get real good at hustling GRIPS but they just hosed down in front of the bull truck and ALL THE ELEPHANT PISS IS FLOWING RIGHT UNDER MY TENT and i haven’t had clean socks for a week.

THE MOST DEATH-DEFYING MAN IN THE WORLD-TODAY! YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE, TO THE INCLINED CABLE ABOVE RINGS ONE AND TWO AND PRESENTING THEREON, IN HIS CLImb to the stARS, THE GREAT HUBERTO! and again out skips little, wizened herbie, who during other acts can be seen in a coke jacket with "it’s the real thing" on his white paper cap, pushing cotton candy, herbie--truly "old circus," reputedly once one of the best wire men In the country.
we blow a series of half notes, following his steps up in a slow crescendo of chromatic tones till he reaches the top: AND NOW, THE SLIIIDE FOR LIFE! and he gracefully zips down, on arrival activating a gunshot and cloud of smoke which never fails to shake the faces in the reserved section.
bows, chasers, then a brassy, almost wagnerian fanfare for


lothar the beautiful
lothar magnificent
the girls all love his style
and when they see him smile
or stand upon his finger
they linger
to see if this fabulous dude
is for real!

lothar & Achim during setup

need we say more? never mind that england isn't the continent, or that he's actually german, he makes a good living standing on his finger. don’t let nobody tell you circuses is goin outa business. $30,000 advance for 1 day in richmond, va . . . a week In D.C $460,000. and they’re paying you WHAT?

     thank baal for the bigtoppers. they could barely stand on their feet, let alone their fingers, and not one would look pretty on the trapeze, but they were topline entertainers: there was always a show to watch. sometimes it was killer, vaunting his under-the-seatwagon or in-the-laundromat-bathroom sexual exploits. . . sometimes it was the gang of them, drunk on their ass and playing King of the Ring. or maybe you’d be startled, rounding the port-a-john, at the hit it hit it hit it marvelous cleavage of hit it hit it beatty’s buttocks as his pants maintained a steady suspension near the top of his thighs. there was the "brighton heist," here Brains and a few others picked a storeroom lock at the dams county fairgrounds & lifted 65 cases of old milwaukee--and then the woozy daze & nights after. and just the names! janitor, M.I.T., stowaway, BeBop, gums, greencoat, sidewall sid & stitchin’ steve, little man . . . see the crew of them, pulling on guy lines like marines straining at the flag on iwo jima.

     the show itself had some integrity. we weren’t a really big circus, but we had three rings and sometimes used two at once, and all the basics were there: animals, aerial acts, juggling, acrobatics, clowns, etc. with performers born into generations of circus families, working young ones into the acts as early as possible (AND NOW THE NEWEST ADDITION TO THE WAL-TIMS, FOUR-YEAR-OLD TOBY!) in an honestly gypsy-ish life, maintaining a culture that passed through the core of mainstream america yet was not of it: a society with its one mores and traditions, some looser and some stricter than those around it, but seemingly more stable.

     the only place i felt a little embarrassed was blowing horn for the sideshow. even if RUSSELL BROS. PALACE OF ODDITIES did provide about the only chance to get loose and jam a little, playing dixie all through dixie country in a hot little ensemble we dubbed "the dirty five," still we were there to suck ‘em in to see mother nature’s curiosities, the strange, the odd, the unusual, real, living & alive, no wax dummies or pasteboard cutouts, no two-headed babies in a bottle of formaldehyde, but only- living performers like neon lean, the electric wizard, monsieur le bounce (he always pronounced it "bone-say"), our rubbersklnned boy, the indestructible girl, the little wooden-headed people from siam (or sometimes burma) and snakes? why, as big around as my leg and twice the length of my body. this show, at least at the beginning of the season, was a stupendous ripoff. the "performers" were usually spaced kids from the prop crew dressed in dirty gym shorts. half the acts mentioned In the bally were nonexistent, and the others involved such virtuoso feats as sitting on a harmlessly crackling box marked "100,000 volts" or holding a small, very friendly boa through a halting delivery of an insipid rap on What Snakes Is Like. exiting, one poor towner said, "why, i wouldn’t pay a quarter for that!" to which ringmaster ed: "i already have your money, sir." sold to america.

     the sideshow got better when sparky the clown joined it--but that was due to his seasoned showmanship--the guy had worked with Ringling, fergodzsake, and not to the attitude of the management, which was interested in bucks alone. this managerial attitude clouded all circus life during those seven months and made what could have been a pretty happy experience at least a little bit of a bummer for everyone. the ads they put out asked for "student clowns," but what they actually wanted, and got, were bigtoppers who would work cheap and stay on in hopes of a breakthrough to the glittering role of performer. There never was a "clown school," and anyone who signed on for it was treated like all the other grunts: like animals. everyone from the band on down was given a plywood bunk in a filthy, crowded fifth wheel semi trailer and hauled around like so much dirty baggage (that's why some of us bought tents), and performance? showmanship? taste and class and responsibility of the entertainer to his audience? that was left entirely to the performers. the management, once tickets were in, would begin the noisy business of tearing down the tent while the last show was going on just lo get an early start on the next jump. if the crowd was really small, they’d cut the show, sometimes in half.
     "in a european circus you would never see this," said Achim, "the people wouldn’t stand for it. over there they dress the prop crew in tuxedos and they rake the sawdust on the ring to a strauss waltz. they even hide the stakes behind flowerpots."
obviously european taste was foreign to Ketchum & Cheetham Bros., our bosses and owners, "oh, he died up there? well, put another one up!" was the ethic, and as long as the police dept. or the jaycees or the firemen or whoever else was sponsoring us came up with a fat check before show time, no one worried much about whether the audience got off or not.

"hey man, like you really did that for seven months?"
"hope to shit in your shoe i did."
"hey, well, like, was it really that hard, with the living conditions and all, and like, you didn’t get much bread for it, wasn’t it kinda like bein a slave?"
"you are not the first to suggest that analogy."
"well, then, like, why didn’t you leave?"
"What? and quit show biz?"