Roaring Under the Big Top

Let me say first I am not one of those who ever wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, a fireman, a fighter pilot or a handsome movie lover who got to kiss the hell out of Lana Turner, cinema's queen of sex at the time of my pubescence. Similarly, I had no desire to run away with the circus, the reason being there is nothing in a circus I can do. I am afraid of height, nervous around wild animals and appalled at the very notion of bouncing around a tent in a clown suit trying to make little children laugh.

Yet there is something about the circus that fascinates me, the way a seal intrigues a killer whale, and when the opportunity arose to interview Clifford Vargas, I jumped at the chance. Well, actually, I expressed interest at the chance. I rarely jump.

Vargas owns the L.A.-based Circus Vargas, which for the past 20 years has traveled the nation with an eclectic troupe of aerialists, animal trainers, jugglers, dancing dogs and others in an effort to prove there continues to exist a form of entertainment in America that has absolutely nothing to do with what a friend calls the sexual arts.

My preconceived notion of a circus owner, especially one his press notices describe as a guy with "sawdust in his veins and stardust in his eyes," was that of a jolly, off-season Santa who ran his company with a quality of forbearance roughly equivalent to that of Mother Teresa . . . until I heard Cliff Vargas chew out a truck driver.

It occurred in Pico Rivera, where the circus was set up at the time. Vargas, a slight man with an intense, unsmiling manner, had already dispelled my notion of circus owner as saint. Here was someone absolutely in charge of all he surveyed, striding around the big top in Western boots and amber-tinted sunglasses, inspecting every sequin in an elephant headdress, roaring with displeasure at sloppy workmanship and spiking with glacial distaste anyone who appeared to be conducting himself in a less than productive manner.

He was a classic example of hands-on entrepreneurship, leaving no detail to chance. One had the feeling that if a high wire needed repair, Vargas would personally shinny up a pole to the peak of his tent to see that it was repaired properly. If a sick elephant needed bottle-feeding, he would feed it. In fact, Vargas has done all of that from the day he mortgaged everything he owned to buy the circus, and he's still doing it, even though the company is worth about $5 million and operating in the black.

More than once during the first 15 years of his ownership, Vargas teetered on the brink of what he likes to call "the edge of the toilet."

"I was green when I started and wasted money buying things I didn't need. No one subsidized me. I drove the diesels, patched the tents, fed the animals and slept in a truck. Even today we get no help. We visit 100 cities a year, and each one has a different set of rules and licenses. No one is keeping the circus alive but me."

For all the intensity he evokes as he stalks about the big top like a leopard among impalas, Mr. Vee, as he is called, manages to maintain a sense of belonging to the enterprise he runs with an iron will. His pervasive presence is actually a settling factor, a cohesiveness that binds the whole thing together, the way Cecil B. DeMille bound together those religious epics with casts of thousands.

"I like doing what I'm doing," Vargas was saying as we settled in a house trailer near the big top. "Even if I sold it all, I would still probably stick around as general manager. It's a hard place to walk away from." As he spoke, his attention was diverted by something occurring just outside the trailer. "I can't imagine myself in a . . . " He stopped speaking suddenly, leaped out the door and fired off a string of invectives that would blister a nun.

A driver, attempting to connect his truck cab with a large trailer still propped up on its permanent underpinnings, had missed the connection device and was backing into the trailer itself, a move that could have snapped the underpinnings and tipped the $200,000 vehicle into the dirt. To say Vargas was angry would be to describe Sean Penn as mild-tempered.

The chewing out, a classic of its kind, lasted a furious few seconds, after which Mr. Vee returned to the interview with whatever placidity he had managed to display before the eruption. "Didn't mean to scare you," he said matter-of-factly. "I've just got to be sure things are done right. Otherwise, where would the circus be?"

As I left, a lady was walking an elephant nearby, and the truck driver was making a second effort to hook up the trailer. Mr. Vee was watching them both with equal intensity.

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