Step Right Up


Vaudeville and Ed Sullivan are dead, Las Vegas lounge acts have almost disappeared, and just about the only circus that comes to town has a French name and serves cappuccino at intermission.

So, where can a juggler, clown, unicycle rider, balloon animal artist and contortionist still find work?

Welcome to a niche of show business known as the county fair circuit.

"Ladies and gentlemen, here is something you have never before seen!" said Terrell Hayes, one-half of the husband-wife act known as Terrell and Takato. He was probably correct.

On an outdoor platform, just a few steps away from a cavernous building where baked goods and plate settings were being judged at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, Takato was sitting on Terrell's shoulders. This would not be notable except that at the time, he was riding a unicycle and doing a routine with long streamers. Meanwhile, she was juggling flaming torches.

The crowd--amounting to only a couple dozen people gathered to see the feat on a midweek afternoon--went nuts.

Of all the performers playing the thousands of county and state fairs across the nation, Terrell had what is probably a unique answer to the question, "How did you get into this line of work?"

"I was a lawyer," he answered.

No punch line followed.

"In Nashville, in a very well regarded firm," said Terrell, 44, with a smile. "I loved the law, the study of law. But one day I looked around at the partners and thought, 'If I stay here, I'll eventually end up alcoholic, with an ulcer or cheating on my wife.' "

Terrell left it all to briefly study mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau, and then he went out on his own as a street performer in San Francisco. He learned juggling, unicycle riding and even a bit of the old Sullivan standby, plate spinning. In 1986 he scored a job at Tokyo Disneyland and, while in Japan, met Takato.

"I worked in department store," said Takato, 33, whose enthusiasm and bright smile during the act plays counter to Terrell's comic cynicism.

Eventually they became a duo on stage and in life. Her parents were not, at first, thrilled with her new profession. "They say, 'Please get a decent job,' " she said. "But then they see I am so happy, and it was OK."

Terrell and Takato came to L.A. after playing fairs this summer in Monterey, Kern County and Anaheim.

But what about the future? Do they have dreams of better venues?

"If we do well," Terrell said, "maybe we'll get onto a cruise ship."

Like several other performers hired for the length of the fair, which closes on Sept. 28, Lanky the Clown was hired to wander about the grounds and entertain. Lanky stopped every few feet to do a magic trick, have his picture taken with a child, do a bit of slapstick or tell a few jokes.

The jokes told to adults by the good-natured clown were not exactly PC.

Lanky, whose real name is Danny Kollaja, lives in Corpus Christi, Texas. "I have played county fairs, but never one as big as this," said Kollaja, 38. "It's so many different types of people, here, I am just loving it."

Entertaining is only a side endeavor for Kollaja, who normally works as a food service director at a school. He's been doing it ever since he scored a big hit as a clown in a high school production.

He moved through the fair crowds in little clown steps but quickly, ever on the lookout for someone to entertain. "Who would not want a job like this?" he asked.

Not far away stood a type of street entertainer rarely seen in this country. Tony Barbato, 41, of West Covina, is an organ grinder, complete with a monkey on a leash.

The monkey, named Zuni, was running toward anyone in the crowd who would lean down and offer her money. She quickly grabbed coins and put them into the pocket of an apron she was wearing, much to the delight of the crowd. A dollar bill always got a handshake (or pawshake, if you will).

"I am the third generation," said Barbato, with pride. "It was my uncle before me, and his father before him, in Italy."

The tall wooden music maker standing by Barbato played tapes of recordings of oldies, such as "Tequila" and "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" through a speaker hidden in its front. Barbato has a traditional organ grinder, but this fair didn't want him to bring it. "They want to go with the newer things," he said.

He explained that during the winter, he works as a car mechanic. "I like this better," he said, "as long as nobody tries to hurt the monkey."


There were two large-scale acts on the fairgrounds. One was a spectacular troupe of young acrobats from Beijing who put on a precision, indoor stage performance that defied belief. They balanced atop high towers of chairs, twirled huge lassos, contorted their bodies into small spaces and, for the finale, put a pyramid of seven performers on a bicycle.

Unfortunately, their translator was off site, so it was impossible to ask what they thought of playing county fairs.

Much more free-form was Street Jam on Wheels, an in-line skate and BMX bicycle thrill show that played on a U-shaped ramp outside. This was the first county fair for several of these performers, many of whom had tattoos and piercings. But they had been in movies and commercials, and had played large theme parks.

Skater Eric Wylie, 26, said he was having a great time playing this venue but noted differences. "They don't have pig races at DisneyWorld," he said.

None of these performers had illusions that working a county fair was a sign of superstardom, but they seemed nonetheless to relish the work.

Perhaps the most joyful of all was Dennis Forel, 44, of Torrance. Riding around on a high bike and tipping his straw hat to one and all, he explained that this was his 11th Los Angeles County Fair appearance.

The bike is an attention getter, "but what I really do is balloon animals," Forel said, stopping to make dogs, giraffes and even snails for kids.

The only kid momentarily disappointed was one who asked for a sword.

"I don't do weapons," he told her gently. "How about a bunny?"

She was happy with that.

"I do 88 different animals," he said, all self-taught. He started making balloon animals as a performer at an outdoor mall in Torrance.

Again, a question came up about the future, about a man making his way toward middle age as a ballon animal artist. Forel didn't seem to understand why the question would even be asked.

"When I was starting out at the mall," he said, "they made me dress in knickers and a little outfit. I looked like an old-time newsboy."

He doffed his hat, showing a healthy amount of gray hair.

"I'm not young anymore, but now I get to wear long pants, dress how I want. Doing this allows me to grow old gracefully."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World