Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hadi Shrine performers set scene

....Motor homes made their way to the Roberts Stadium parking lot as circus crews arrived to start working on Tuesday....

Circus almost as traditional as turkey
By Garret Mathews (Contact)
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rick Wrigley looks around at all the trucks, trailers and RVs parked in the rear of Roberts Stadium.

"Trailer city," he calls it.

The 40-year-old native of Spokane, Wash., laughs.

"The only problem is we don't have enough time to enjoy it."

Wrigley is a driver and mechanic for the Jordan World Circus. He's in town to work the pony rides for the 75th Hadi Shrine Circus that opens Thursday.

"This kind of life is go-go-go for almost 11 months a year. Sometimes we're on for 18 hours a day. The circus is meant to roll, and you have to be self-sufficient. If I'm not doing something with the animals, I'm pulling maintenance on one of our vehicles."

Wrigley, a former house painter, has been with the circus a year. He's still recovering from bone cancer in his arm.

"I wasn't even looking for a job. I was visiting a friend in Missoula, Mont., who's a prop boss. He asked if I like to travel. I said, yeah, and here I am. It's a grind sometimes, but seeing the smiling faces of all the kids keeps me going."

He has a small bedroom set up in his truck.

"I'm divorced, and that kinda figures. This isn't the life if you're married."

One man adjusts his satellite dish at the edge of this makeshift community. A little boy kicks a soccer ball. A young woman carries a case of bottled water into her trailer.

Kids' bicycles are stacked neatly outside one unit. A cat takes a nap on the windshield of an RV. Cords stretch across the asphalt to power boxes.

Olga Surnina, a 29-year-old aerialist, came to Evansville early Sunday morning.

"How have I been spending my time? Watching football on television."

The Russian native says she first attended "sports school" when she was 6. Academic classes were wrapped around her training in acrobatics.

She also does a hand-balancing act and will be one of the elephant riders.

"I've never hurt myself seriously. Some of that is luck. Some is having good instincts. You have to be a little nervous to work 40 feet up, but you can't be afraid, and you can't be worried about falling."
The Evansville gig is popular, she says, "because it's like a reunion of people you don't get to see very often.

They work at other shows during the season, and it's become a habit to get together here at the end of the year."

Surnina has been in the United States for six years. She has resident status and hopes to become a citizen.

"There's no way I could do a regular 9-to-5 job. I need the excitement. Being up in the air is what I love. I hope to be doing it when I'm 40 or even 50."

Roger Zoppe, 58, watches as another trailer, this one from Oklahoma, joins the rolling stock Tuesday afternoon outside the arena.

"The first time I came to the Evansville show, I was 12 years old. I've seen a lot of these performers grow up. The hospitality of the Shriners is tremendous. This is one of the greatest shows of its kind in the United States."

With wife Pamela, Zoppe does an act with five of their seven chimpanzees.

"Our chimp Kenya is one of the few in the world that's been trained to jump on a moving pony."

Zoppe doesn't have much free time, but he did visit Anchor Industries.

"They make tents for show people. I find that very interesting."

He says traveling with performing animals "is becoming more and more of a hassle. You've got your government restrictions. You've got PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). And a lot of states have their hands out for a licensing fee as soon as you cross its border. We're not exactly wealthy, and everybody, it seems, wants a piece of us."

Prancing around the stage with cutely dressed animals might look glamorous, Zoppe says, "but people should see me crawling under the bus in an ice storm, trying to get back on the road so we can make the next date."

Business, he notes, has fallen off.

"The price of doing what we do is ridiculous. We're not earning much more than we were 30 years ago. Earlier this year, I was driving down the road with a load of $5.25 per-gallon diesel fuel in my tank. I thought to myself, gee, this is crazy."

Zoppe is an independent contractor, meaning he does his own booking.

"But I sure wish somebody would pay me every week. If the bananas for the chimps are gonna get bought, I have to buy them."