Monday, February 16, 2009

The Circus is in town today / But the family circus industry is shrinking, along with the U.S. economy

A pink poodle demonstrates its skills on a scooter as the Jordan World Circus sets up Friday at the Golden Spike Arena in Ogden.

By Charles Trentelman
Standard-Examiner staff
Saturday,Jan 29,2009

OGDEN -- Actually, yes, some people do still run away to join the circus.

It's not easy, because there aren't that many circuses left. The ones remaining are run, and staffed, mostly by people whose parents and grandparents -- and even ancestors back six generations -- were in the circus, too.

It's very much a family thing, but Lana Steeples managed to break in.

It was 21 years ago, she said. The circus came to her small town in Newfoundland, Canada. With it was Ari Steeples, the bear trainer, and that was that.

"Two weeks later, I left in a van to drive 5,400 miles from Newfoundland to Alaska," she said Friday morning as she hefted bear-act equipment out of their semi-trailer behind the Golden Spike Arena.

"And my mother just stopped crying a week ago," this last said with a grin.

Life has been a circus ever since.

Lana said she did marry Ari, "but you know they say 20 years of marriage in the circus is like 40 years anywhere else, because you're always together."

The couple, their two children and their two bears all travel in a semi-trailer with the Jordan World Circus, which opened Friday night in Ogden and has shows again today at 3 p.m. and7 p.m. at the Weber County Fairgrounds.

The circus also is scheduled Feb. 6 and 7 at the Davis County Fairgrounds Arena.

On Friday morning, circus workers were busy setting up.

The bears were still sleeping, but the pink and blue poodles were happily frisking around while Steeples fussed over one of the three elephants' sore foot.

Roustabouts were laying out the three rings. Giselle, who does a single-trapeze act, was hanging her equipment from roof beams. Workers were using a hoist to assemble a big steel ball in which three guys on motorcycles would later roar around, defying death.

"We've got a little of everything," Steeples said. "Lion, tigers, bears, high wire, hula hoop dancing, the giant Wheel of Destiny."

As circuses go, Jordan World Circus is relatively new.

DeLisa Jordan, who manages the business end from Las Vegas, said her father, John Jordan, bought out a partner in another circus 23 years ago.

Her father has since died, so now she and her brother, Jody, run it.

Circus life is never a sure thing, she said.

With the economy tanking worldwide, circus employees have no idea how the year will be. All they can do is hit the road and hope for the best. They're just a week into the season now.

Jordan isn't a circus with tents. It plays in stadiums and arenas, in big cities and small. It plays all over the U.S. and Canada. The circus has two groups of performers, one that plays the East Coast, one the West.

Circus life is no way to get rich.

Most performers in the Jordan World Circus are on contract, Steeples said, which means the circus pays them to bring their act along.

Ari Steeples, like the others, gets a lump sum upfront. From that, he pays all his costs: gas, food, vet bills, laundry, the works.

What's left is his.

"If I take home $40,000 for the year, I'm doing well," he said.

That sort of arrangement can be hard.

Vincent Von Duke, from Sarasota, Fla., has five big cats in the show: male and female lions, a Siberian tiger, a Bengal tiger and a white Bengal tiger.

He's a sixth-generation circus performer.

Costs to stay on the road are what's the worst, he said. "Last year was horrible," with diesel costing $5 a gallon. It cost another $250 a day to feed his cats.

"And what's tough, every state has permits. In some, you have to have permits just to drive through," and if he has to pay out $700 just to go into California, he said, it makes him think twice.

"It's a dying art," he said. "And it's a shame, because everything's getting expensive."

He admits he even has some thoughts of hanging it up. He's got a palm tree farm down in Florida to fall back on and ponders opening up a combination bed-and-breakfast and wild-animal park.

For the Steeples family, no such thoughts occur. The circus has always been their life and seems destined to remain so.

Ari is the ringmaster, while Lana runs the bear act. Their youngest child baby-sits for others in the circus.

And their son, Angelo?

"He's doing his first act this year," Ari said. "He's 12 years old, and he does a sword-balancing act," an act he debuted in Tooele just two days ago.

"He's earning a living, traveling around the country and going to school," Ari said.

Leave the circus? "What else would we do?"