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CIRCUS REVIEW : Old-Fashioned Big-Top Magic Failed to Materialize at Show

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San Diego County Arts Writer

I began to anticipate the thrill of the circus, its spectacle and color, the feats of skill and daring as I walked from the car toward the Circus Vargas Big Top.

The parking lot was streaming with people, and, nearing the first brightly painted circus trailer, I heard an announcer calling to patrons and detected the pungent odor of manure.

But the sound was not of a live barker; rather it was a voice recording on a loop, urging people to visit the snake side show. “All reptiles guaranteed to be alive,” the recording said. “Nothing’s stuffed.”

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The pythons and boa constrictors may be alive, but where have all the barkers gone? Times have changed, and the circus, that last bastion of traditional family entertainment, faced with rising costs, is doing its best to keep up.

Tickets to last month’s visiting Moscow Circus seemed surprisingly high--$12.50-$20. Circuses in Russia cost about 50 cents, said a Moscow Circus performer.

The Russian circus pulled in $900,000 and attracted an audience of 62,300, a 20-year record at the Sports Arena for the highest grossing extended engagement. But the Moscow Circus’s record receipts were more a reflection of its high ticket prices than the numbers of fannies filling seats. According to a Sports Arena spokesman, the circus performed to only about 65% of capacity,

Whether the $20 ticket prices were U. S. or Soviet capitalism at work, is unclear. In contrast, Circus Vargas prices--$4-$15--seem like a deal.

However, even the best bleacher seats are not cheap--$9.50-$12.50 for adults and $5-$8.50 for children. In the football-field-sized big top, the $4 children-only seats are at each end, comparable to the end zones.

The Circus Vargas performance got off to a limping start. With no sense of ceremony from ring master Joe Pon, the show began little by little, with the lions and tigers slipping into a cage in the center ring.

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Dressed in black pants and and a downscale black leather jacket as if there were no audience there, animal trainer Alan Gold directed a dozen huge Bengal tigers and three lions to their places in a circular cage. Although Gold dutifully stuck his head into a lion’s mouth, the series of acrobatic cat tricks lacked the snap and excitement that Clyde Beatty was once known for.

The show included clowns and jugglers, acrobats and aerialists. But, with few exceptions, the acts were mediocre. The aerial trapeze act by the Alves Troupe was performed only in a small section at one end of the huge big top.

The clowns, working routines with long planks and boxing gloves, couldn’t hit the funny bone. The jugglers looked like they were new to the act, and the choreography for the can-can dancers required little talent.

James Puydebois’ energetic menagerie of trained dogs, skidding down a sliding board or turning back flips, clearly stole the show.

The huge elephants were impressive mainly because of their size. Everyone looked great in Hedy Jo Starr’s bright new costumes, everyone except the elephants, whose “Circus Vargas” discs, worn on their foreheads, could use some fresh paint.

Circus Vargas continues locally today through Thursday at Grossmont Community College, Friday through Sunday at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Jan. 23-26 at the Escondido Village Mall and Jan. 27-30 at Southwestern College.

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