Circus Vargas takes family unity on the road

They aren’t just clowning around when they say this group offers family entertainment.

Katya Quiroga, a seventh-generation circus performer, and husband Nelson Quiroga, a fifth-generation Big Topper, own Circus Vargas, which has set up through Monday at a Hollywood athletic field where Sunset Boulevard crosses the Hollywood Freeway.

“My father is general manager and tent master, my mother is a retired acrobat and my sister is a former acrobat who now is Circus Vargas’ graphic designer. Nelson’s parents used to be acrobats too, and they work in the concessions department,” said 41-year-old Katya.


The Quirogas’ three daughters — Graciella, 3, Daniella, 8 and Mariella, 13 — are also being taught performing skills. “We’ve introduced them to the circus arts, dancing and acrobatics. I’m pretty sure our kids will follow in our footsteps,” said 44-year-old Nelson.

Nelson’s career was launched when he was 11 and performing with his parents and brother in a South American circus, based in Argentina.

“We lived in a little 10-foot-by-10-foot tent. We didn’t have vehicles, so when we traveled from town to town, we’d just roll up our little tent and throw it on top of the circus semis. We’d travel in the semis too,” he said.

In those days, the children of circus performers would attend a local school during the three weeks that the show was in town before moving to the next place and the next classroom. “I have very little schooling,” acknowledged Nelson.

Katya’s parents, both acrobats, sent her and her sister to live with grandparents in Holland while their circus moved through Europe, South Africa and elsewhere. She studied classical music and ballet at Holland’s Royal Conservatory.

Circuses “didn’t have a school system for kids back then. That’s why my parents made the wise decision to send me to school,” she said. “When I finished school at 16, I wanted to be with my parents and experience the circus. I thought it might be short-term, a year or two.”

Katya started by doing a juggling act with her mother and soon began acrobatic training. “It was so much fun I didn’t leave,” she said.

Things are different these days for children of circus performers.

Circus Vargas has a mobile classroom and employs a teacher who oversees the studies of 15 school-age youngsters. Five preschoolers will soon join them.

“I want to give our daughters choices. They will be going to college for a few years, that’s our plan. Then they can make an educated decision that yes, they want to stay in the circus, or no, they don’t,” Katya said.

The Quirogas — who have performed together as The Flying Tabares — met when Katya was 18 and Nelson was 21.

Former Circus Vargas owner Clifford Vargas had recruited Nelson’s family to perform in his 1989 show and brought the four of them to the U.S. “He was sort of our Cupid,” said Katya.

“He told Katya that he’d hired a bunch of hot Latin guys and one of them was going to be her future husband,” Nelson says, laughing. Vargas, 64, died soon after, but not before learning that his two young performers had begun dating.

Another group ran Circus Vargas after his death. But changing public tastes and allegations of animal cruelty caused the circus to decline. When the new owners decided to sell in 2005, the Quirogas offered to buy it.

“The circus was just barely functioning. We couldn’t bear to see it disappear,” Katya said. “It was a bit of a miracle. We didn’t offer as much money as other buyers, but those selling wanted it to be in good hands. They knew we’d take care of it.”

Since taking over, the Quirogas say, they have refined the one-ring circus’ two-hour show and recruited a tightly knit group of performers. Also, the circus does not use animals.

“It’s not enough just to have a good act. We are together 24/7, so we have to have people who are happy to be here. When they go home, their RVs are parked next to each other. Everybody does have to get along,” Katya said as she watched performer Jon Weiss balance a 12-foot, 70-pound ladder on his chin.

After Sunday’s shows at 12:30, 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. and Monday’s 6:30 performance, the circus will pull down the 1,400-seat tent and move its 60 vehicles to Orange County for four weeks. Shows will be held in Westminster, Irvine and Santa Ana. Later, the troupe heads for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“We’re a big traveling community without a ZIP Code,” she said.