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Taking 'The Greatest Show On Earth' On The Road Is A Total Circus

May 19, 2017
Originally published on May 19, 2017 6:45 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A kingdom on wheels, a city that folds itself up like an umbrella - that's how McClure's Magazine described the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1895. The magazine wrote that the logistics were so impressive that the U.S. Army studied its methods. Well, the circus is ending this Sunday after 146 years. We sent Camila Domonoske to visit that rolling kingdom to figure out just how big the Greatest Show on Earth really is.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: How big is it? Astoundingly large, spectacularly huge. But seriously, just consider the numbers. Each circus train is a mile long. They're the longest passenger trains in the world, carrying 300 performers and crew. Then there's the animals, 21 horses.

TATIANA TCHALABAEVA: (Foreign language spoken).

DOMONOSKE: They travel with Tatiana Tchalabaeva and her husband, Kanat. She was a gymnast and acrobat when they met.

TCHALABAEVA: I was so scared of horses, you know. For me, it was like (vocalizing). And then it's become time. My mother-in-law was retiring, and my husband just said - OK, let's go - time to learn (laughing).

DOMONOSKE: Now she can dangle off a galloping horse and pick up a handkerchief. There's two dozen dogs...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

DOMONOSKE: ...Two 700-pound pigs...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS OINKING)

DOMONOSKE: ...With trainer Hans Klose...

HANS KLOSE: He was destined for bacon, and we saved him.

DOMONOSKE: ...Three llamas, four goats, two donkeys, a dozen big cats and two kangaroos. This is an entire community on the move.

LILA SIMONE IVERSON BAPTISTE: Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages...

DOMONOSKE: The ringmaster's daughter, Lila Simone Iverson Baptiste (ph), has her dad's routine down pat. Thirty-five children travel with the circus. There's a nursery and a school, performers from more than 20 countries and a circus priest.

JERRY HOGAN: I did a baptism once in Fort Worth, Texas. And I came in on an elephant carrying the baby, which was 4 weeks old.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)

DOMONOSKE: When the train arrives in a new city, it's a race against the clock. Instead of raising a tent, the crew lift a 59,000-pound aluminum grid into the air. It holds lights, trapezes, pyrotechnics.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOLS HAMMERING)

DOMONOSKE: Lorelei Owens used to be a fire-eater in a sideshow and now runs pyro for the circus. She says setting up is a massive job.

LORELEI OWENS: Well over 30 hours' worth of work.

DOMONOSKE: After all, they're preparing for a massive show, 106 performers.

Backstage, one troupe is playing basketball - on unicycles - as the trick skaters do stretches and the motorcyclists suit up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE)

DOMONOSKE: On the concourse, 50 people who sell concessions are setting up. They travel with the circus too. Jerley Gutierrez used to do trapeze and now runs the snow cone stand. Holding his 2-year-old son, he says, this circus is more than a job: it's a lifestyle.

JERLEY GUTIERREZ: It's not the end of the world. But in a kind of way it is for us.

DOMONOSKE: Everyone here is thinking about what comes next. Tatiana Tchalabaeva has all those horses to feed.

TCHALABAEVA: Life will show us what we're going to do. Everybody's in the question mark right now, you know.

DOMONOSKE: But for now, there's a show to put on...

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM AND BAILEY BAND'S "CIRCUS MUSIC")

DOMONOSKE: ...Just a few more times. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM AND BAILEY BAND'S "CIRCUS MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.