Hurry-Hurry-Hurry! The Circus Is Pitching Its Tent in Irvine, Santa Ana

Three hundred strangers arrive in town and suddenly an ordinary parking lot is transformed into a mystical paradise. Lions and tigers dance side by side and death-defying gods in spangly tights swing high overhead by their teeth.

Laaaaadies and gentlemen! Prepare yourself for a world of magic and enchantment. The circus is in to town.

Well, coming to town, actually. On Tuesday, Circus Vargas will pitch "the world's largest traveling big top" at Irvine Meadows to bewitch and bewilder children of all ages. For 3 days, there will be high-flying aerialists, parading pachyderms, glamorous showgirls and slap-happy clowns--all jampacked into a three-ring, $15-million extravaganza that aims at keeping hard-core fans and first-timers alike on the edges of their seats. From Friday through Jan. 25, the circus will be at Centennial Park in Santa Ana.

Ringmaster Joe Pon, who begins his 10th year with the circus in the 1988 show, said: "There's a real sense of wonder to it all, especially under a big top. It's different than a circus presented in a building. You're so close to the performers. . . . You can smell the cotton candy and the animals, you feel the breeze when an elephant rushes past you. There's just an enchantment there that you can't get in, say, a sports arena, where you know in a couple of days they'll be playing hockey.

"Mr. Vargas always says that there are no stars in our show other than the tent. We believe that. To us, the real circus is inseparable from the tent."

Producer and president Clifford E. Vargas, the grandson of Portuguese circus performers, worked as a promoter for several other circuses before launching his own 17 years ago. Circus Vargas, now based in North Hollywood, has grown from a modest traveling show to an operation that employs hundreds of performers and production people from around the world.

Simple canvas tents have been replaced by a custom-made, vinyl canopy made in Italy and big as a football field. But what's going on inside is still old-fashioned magic.

The 1988 Circus Vargas tour started Jan. 8 with shows around San Diego. After the Orange County shows, it will move on to the Riverside Raceway and to other cities across Southern California until early April.

Mark Landon, a regional marketing director for the circus, says the performance schedule is nothing short of grueling. Shows are presented up to four times daily to crowds as large as 5,000 people. There are no days off, no free rides. Everybody pitches in.

"Just as an example," he said, "the last show in Chula Vista will end about 10 p.m. on the 18th. The performers will pack up their own rigging and get on the road while the crew brings down the tent . . . probably by about 3 a.m. They will be in Irvine about 5 a.m., and by 6 they'll start setting up the tent." The tent will be up by noon--8 hours before the opening performance.

The raising of the big top is quite a show in itself. Landon said the circus grounds will be open to the public from 10:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday in Irvine and Friday in Santa Ana so fans can share in the excitement. Circus animals will be on display, and all the Vargas clowns will be on hand to meet and greet the kids.

Headlining the '88 show will be lion tamer (and Los Angeles native) Alan Gold and "the world's largest array of mixed lions and tigers." Bare-chested and with a mane of blond hair to rival his feline friends, Gold puts his 17 cats through their paces inside a huge black steel cage. At his command, the big cats roll over, jump through fire hoops and walk on their hind legs. And in a spine-tingling finale, Gold places his head inside a lion's mouth.

"We try to show people that while you can work with these animals, you have to realize that they are still wild and very dangerous," said Gold, who has been a trainer for 12 years and whose act has been featured on TV's "Circus of the Stars."

"You can hand-raise some of these cats from one week old, and they can still turn out to be exactly what they're supposed to be--wild lions and tigers. It's amazing how many people think the animals have no teeth or are on drugs. They're hard enough to motivate when they're sober, let alone tranquilized!

"I've even had someone tell me that I had rubber teeth in my lion's mouth." He laughed. "If I could find a dentist to do that, I'd be doing all right!"

With no rubber teeth to fall back on, Gold relies on caution and fast thinking to deal with his animals' unpredictable behavior. During the act, he is surrounded by his snarling cats (many other tamers work with a semicircle for a measure of safety), so he stations three or four "spotters" outside the cage to alert him of potential danger.

"A lot of people in this business go through what I call the Superman syndrome," he said. "When they're young, they feel like they're infallible, that the animals can't hurt them. That usually ends up in a serious accident. I know. I've been hurt real bad, and that makes you sit back and realize just how careful you have to be."

Like many in Circus Vargas, Gold travels with his family during the show's 10-month tours. His two sons, ages 2 and 5, are growing up on the road, but Gold said he doesn't plan on pushing them into the family business.

"If they decide for themselves, fine, but I won't influence them," Gold said.

Gold's lions and tigers are part of a stable of four-footed performers that includes Rex Williams' 14 high-stepping elephants, Sir William Baker's Royal Andalusian liberty horses and the amazing Cimeon's cycling chimpanzees.

For thrill-seekers, there's also the Paolos of Spain and their aerial act; the Pietro-Canestrellis, reaching new heights with their acrobatic teeter board, and dozens of other gravity-defying artists from Europe and the United States. And don't forget the jugglers, the showgirls or, of course, the clowns.

"It's hard to say if there is really one act that's an audience favorite," ringmaster Pon said. "Reactions vary so much from area to area. Everybody loves something different."

During his decade with the show, leading up to 600 performances in more than 95 cities each year, Pon has seen virtually every type of audience from the urban sprawl of Southern California to the farm towns of the Midwest.

Born in Toronto, he started out in the circus while on a year's leave of absence from teaching English and Canadian literature. As the years stretched to 2 and now to 10, Pon said, the nomad life is the only one for him.

"I love the sense of community, the traveling and, of course, the work," he said. "I honestly didn't think I would do for very long, but this is what I am now. It's my life, and I'll stay with it as long as they'll have me.

"Sure, there are rough times, like in Texas, when it's 104 outside with overwhelming humidity, and the sweat is literally dripping off the tent. You think, 'Wouldn't it be nice to be in an air-conditioned office somewhere?' But again, there's that sense of family. You look into the faces of the other performers, and you remember you're all in it together.

"And then, you just have to take a look at the audience. Especially the kids. They're mystified. I mean, here they are in a place that's very familiar to them, like the parking lot of their neighborhood shopping center, yet once they step inside the big top, they're in another world. They're bewitched. And pretty soon everybody else is too."

Circus Vargas performs at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre parking lot Jan . 19 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 20 and 21 at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. At Santa Ana's Centennial Park, shows are Jan . 22 at 8 p.m.; Jan . 23 at 12:30, 3:30 and 8 p.m.; Jan . 24 at noon, 3, 6 and 9 p.m.; and Jan . 25 at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $4 to $14.50 for children, $8.50 to $18.50 for adults. Tickets may be bought at all Ticketron locations, at the Oak Brook Village Shopping Center (for the Irvine Meadows performances only), or at the door. Information: (714) 647-0795.

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