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The Circus’ Fourth Ring

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“How tall are you?”

“How big are your feet?”

“Have you ever been recruited by the NBA?”

In city after city, Aurengzeb Khan--formerly a cabdriver, a bouncer, a security supervisor--endures these three questions with a waning half-smile, sitting atop a makeshift throne in an outfit that gives him the gaudy aspect of a genie. This is Year 1 of his two-year contract as the “World’s Tallest Man” in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and, frankly, he says with a chagrined look, there are days when he thinks, “They don’t pay me enough.”

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Khan is part of the circus’ “freak show” (not Ringling’s phrase; the preferred designation is “sideshow sensations”), a decades-old tradition that has been resurrected this year as the circus searches for a fresh spin on its 128-year-old franchise (in addition to Khan, at 8 feet the tallest man, there is Michu, at 33 inches the smallest).

Other innovations in Ringling, which arrived in Southern California on Wednesday for a dizzying 44 performances in four venues over three weeks, include “The Three Ring Adventure,” an interactive pre-circus event where patrons are invited into the arena an hour before show time to mingle with the clowns and acrobats and specialty acts like Mysticlese, the “Master of the Mind,” who walks on lightbulbs.

But mostly, the circus is still the circus--an anachronism on wheels, a United Nations traveling the railways of America some 49 weeks of the year, nomadic and self-contained and apparently able to beat back the forces that always threaten to make an old-timey circus extinct--the movies and television and techno-toys aimed at kids, the protests and boycotts from animal rights activists alleging abuse of the circus animals. Amid this, the Vienna, Va.-based Ringling Bros. circus, owned by Feld Entertainment, reportedly made $95.5 million last year.

Not everything about the circus calls to mind a long-lost era; these days, the ringmaster uses a wireless microphone and the big top has been replaced by arenas with corporate names. These days, the “World’s Tallest Man” has a pager number.

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But Ringling Bros. is still an alternate universe of circus families, circus marriages, circus people, a place where a 46-year-old Hungarian physical education teacher can reinvent himself as “Nikolai, The Iron Jaw,” able to bend steel in his teeth.

The circus couples include Angel Quiros, the 34-year-old Spanish high-wire walker, who is married to Michelle Ayala, the 28-year-old Mexican “hair hanger,” both of them from families of circus performers dating back five and six generations. There are many Central and Eastern Europeans, Bulgarians, Russians, Hungarians, Romanians. There is a Pakistani (Khan). This year, there’s a group of African performers from Gabon.

Some 360 members of the cast and crew travel the country in the Ringling train; others ride in trailer homes or their own cars. Downtime is spent poking around a new city, looking for a Laundromat, doing some quick grocery shopping, re-stocking the supply of videos, making phone calls (there are no personal phones on the train).

Some haven’t known any other way of life and hope they never do.

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“This is like the Peace Corps, it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,” says Alan Ware.

Ware, 30, a clown, steps off the Ringling train and onto the parched earth of Fresno in July. Already, Emily Sullivan, Matthew Morgan and Mark Gindick, fellow twentysomething clowns, have set up lawn chairs and are smoking in the impossible heat. It’s 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the circus has just arrived from a weekend engagement in Phoenix.

For the next five days, the nearly mile-long train will remain parked here, on a desolate stretch of track on the outskirts of downtown Fresno, the only view that of nearby warehouses and the only shade offered by a highway overpass.

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There are 18 clowns in each of the two Ringling Bros. units (red and blue) that travel the country. All have to go through clown college, then another series of auditions to earn a spot on Clown Alley. Clowning doesn’t pay much (they laugh when a reporter asks if they make as much as $15,000 a year), and the circus provides them only transportation and a “roomette,” a roughly 4-by-8-foot living space. Meals aren’t covered. Neither are incidentals, which for a clown can include lots and lots of Baby Wipes and talcum powder. Many performers have what are called “cherry pie jobs”: They help with load-ins, with rigging, to earn extra cash.

But if you’re in your 20s and want to see the country, why not ride the rails as a circus clown? That seems to be the collective attitude of Gindick, 22, a film student at the State University of New York at Purchase; Morgan, 24, from Sherman Oaks; and Sullivan, 21, from Montevallo, Ala.

Ware, from Albuquerque, N.M., has been with Ringling for two years and exudes more of the proud artiste’s attitude than his colleagues. Later, he will kill time strolling the railway-adjacent wasteland, idly playing his accordion--looking for all the world like a refugee from a Bergman film.

He calls himself a “mime in recovery.” Ware studied with Marcel Marceau at Kenyon College in Ohio but made a career adjustment “when the bottom dropped out of the miming market,” he says. Just recently, his parents stopped thinking of this as “a phase.” Ware’s not sure what he’ll do after the circus. In its own way, the button attached to the brim of his hat says it all: “I live in the past. The rent’s cheaper.”

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Beginning at 11 p.m., families had begun camping out on Ventura Street, waiting for the traditional Animal Parade, the march of the elephants and horses and various other animals from the train to the circus site. But, as often happens with an operation as big and unwieldy as Ringling, things are behind schedule.

Now, at 5:30 p.m., four hours after the train pulled into town, the Asian elephants still stand chained in their modestly ventilated freight cars, the temperature outside up over 100 degrees. There are assurances from circus officials (“They like the heat,” says one), but on a day like today, it isn’t hard to see why Ringling Bros. is a favorite target of animal rights groups, principally People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

It’s a battle that has become a latter-day circus tradition. Several months ago, in a canny use of the Internet, PETA posted a site at www.ringlingbrothers.com to detail the circus’s violations of federal animal care regulations, including one involving the death of an elephant. Ringling sued for copyright infringement, and in May PETA backed down, changing the site name to www.circuses.com.

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But PETA campaign coordinator Jane Harrison says the organization is hardly in a posture of retreat. And she quickly counters the notion that the elephants don’t mind standing in the stifling heat, as Ringling officials in Fresno repeatedly maintained.

“It infuriates me to hear that,” she says. “Obviously, Ringling has a financial interest in making it seem like this [treatment] is OK.”

For its part, the circus maintains that groups like PETA exaggerate and even lie about how the circus treats its animals, pointing to the fact that they have a full-time animal care staff and a “conservation farm” in Florida where they breed their Asian elephants rather than rip them from the wilds of Asia.

But the circus, Harrison notes, has been cited for violations of the Animal Welfare Act by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just last April, the USDA cited the circus over the death of an elephant forced to perform while sick (the circus said the animal had a gastrointestinal infection and had been treated with antibiotics).

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PETA plans to protest all of the circus’ Southern California shows.

David Kiser, traveling public relations director with the circus, seems unfazed.

“I think the more the public becomes educated about what we do, the more they ignore that,” he says of the protests.

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Wednesday afternoon. Inside Selland Arena, workers are busy getting the circus ready for tonight’s opening performance.

But Wednesday is also a school day for the kids who travel with Ringling Bros. as part of circus families. Today, “school” takes place in a narrow room off the arena lobby. Jean Erikson’s job is a challenging one; in addition to overseeing 23 kids who range in age from 6 to 17, she has to make do finding places to teach in arenas where a kid may suddenly raise his hand and ask to be excused for a rehearsal or even a performance.

“Sometimes when I’m teaching, I have to talk over the noise of the circus,” she says.

And then there’s the fact that she has kids from such disparate lands as the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria and Spain. Like their homelands, the kids’ English skills fall all over the map, though many have been working in circuses in the U.S. since they were very young.

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Today, amid the bustle and noise of the setup crews, Erikson, from Westminster, manages to keep her charges occupied with math, social studies and English grammar workbooks. The students, she says, get in 12 to 15 hours of class time a week. Erikson’s been doing this for only a few months; she’s a substitute until the circus finds a permanent teacher. Not surprisingly, she says, Ringling is having a tough time finding a permanent replacement.

“But I’m beginning to even like the smell of the animals,” she says.

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As early afternoon drones on and the tough physical work of the load-in crew nears completion, the performers start to trickle into the arena.

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Among them is Mark Myers. He is 27, from Vero Beach, Fla., and he has a highly recognizable position with the circus.

He is the human cannonball.

For someone who gets shot out of a cannon roughly 800 times a year, Myers’ body seems relatively unblemished. Contrary to popular belief, he says, the danger in his job comes less in the initial explosion than in the landing. If he doesn’t rotate in the air and land properly, if his hands don’t grab the safety net just so, there’s no telling where he’ll get flung.

Myers could be doing other things, of course. He began circus life as a clown with the rival Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus before turning to cannonballing. At 5 feet, 7 inches and 145 pounds, he’s apparently at an ideal size for the work. Plus, he says, this’ll look great on his resume when he moves on to bigger and better acting jobs.

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“Everybody knows about [the human cannonball], so that’s gonna help my resume stick out that much more,” he says.

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It’s an hour before “The Three Ring Adventure,” and the local media have gathered outside Selland Arena to do live spots on the local news.

Standing in the shade, a muscle-bound 46-year-old Hungarian with little English is explaining through a translator how he has been able to reinvent himself as “Nikolai, The Iron Jaw,” able to bend steel in his molars.

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His goal?

“To become as famous in America as David Copperfield,” he says.

Also, to pull a small Boeing plane with his teeth.

“It’s a gift,” he says, when asked how he plans to do this.

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Back inside the arena, Khan isn’t so high-falutin’ about his work.

In an interview before he repairs to his dressing room, he seems to understand that he’s signed over the next two years of his life so that people can gawk at him with impunity.

Sometimes, he knows, he scares little children. Like the kid who refused to have his picture taken with Khan, despite his mother’s entreaties, because he was afraid The World’s Tallest Man would eat him.

“Many of the world’s tallest men, they don’t want to do this,” Khan says.

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But Khan has a contract, and so an hour later there he is, sitting on his uncomfortable throne, in his genie costume, surrounded by parents and kids, fielding those three questions, the same ones over and over, never mind if today he’s in Lubbock, Texas, or Lexington, Ky., or Fresno, Calif.

His literal place on the map hardly matters. Maybe yesterday it did, but yesterday he was just a very large guy schlepping from Phoenix to Fresno in his trailer.

Tonight, with the families gathered around, he’s something else--an occupant in a fantasy world, a participant in an old and odd ritual. He’s a sideshow act with the traveling circus.

BE THERE

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Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Long Beach Arena, tonight through Sunday; at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Wednesday through July 26; at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, July 28 through Aug. 4; and at the Great Western Forum, Aug. 6 through 9. Tickets are $11.50, $18.50 and $32.50. Call Ticketmaster or arena box offices.


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