- Historic Sites
Sex Death And Ronald Mcdonald
ON THE ROAD DURING THE ERA OF GREATEST PERIL FOR THE ONE INDISPENSABLE AMERICAN SHOW
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
“There’s a country club just up the road,” he said. “I’ll bet they have a shower we could use.”
When the circus arrived in a new town, Noderer scouted out free showers. Most of the performers had showers in their house trailers, but the big-top men (the workers who put up and tore down the tents), the propmen, and the butchers (the candy, Italian ice, and popcorn venders who walked up and down the aisles during the shows, trays hanging from ropes looped around their necks) slept in bunks in the large vans, sixteen-wheelers that traveled with the circus. They had no showers. In the morning, when Noderer distributed copies of the local newspaper to the circus people, a service that earned him about a half-buck per week per customer, he spread the word about where to find and how to get into accessible showers.
“Here comes the cookhouse,” he said as a truck painted red and yellow with the circus’s name on its side turned into the mall and drove slowly toward the opposite end of the parking lot, to what would become the back of the circus. The front of the circus—the ticket booth, the midway, the sideshow—would be our side of the lot. “The cookhouse always comes first,” said Noderer.
The truck circled, its headlights flashing as it faced us, until it stopped at a spot Noderer had marked. The headlights snapped off, leaving for a second two red ghost moons suspended in the dark. The engine died. Workers unloaded the dining tent and, walking backward, dragging the canvas by its edges, unfolded and stretched it out. Years ago, at a time when people were both less romantic and less embarrassed about being romantic than we are, these workers were called roustabouts. Shy of the glamour which that name evoked, they now considered themselves simply laborers.
The sound of sledgehammers ringing against the snubbed heads of the metal stakes echoed against the mall walls, each blow a trochaic beat that Noderer unconsciously tapped time to with his foot.
“I was traveling with a circus in Canada,” he said. “Three years. I have a liberty act [performing horses], but my truck broke down. I just joined this circus.” He studied his tapping foot. “I’d like to get back to Canada, get my horse act together.”
He pushed himself away from my van and brushed off the back of his pants.
“I’ll spot you,” he said. “Put your van where I show you, right on the midway. Tomorrow you’ll wake up, there’ll be a circus around you.”
Later that night I climbed into the bed in the back of my van, and propped the pillow so I could watch the parking lot glide into view. More than half the performers owned Airstream trailers, and arriving one by one, lining up side by side, the Airstreams, all silvery and pod-shaped, looked like a fleet of flying saucers mustering on Earth in a 1950s science fiction thriller. Throughout the parking lot people were talking in low tones. John Pugh, then the circus’s general manager, whose trailer was parked next to my van, said out loud in the dark to no one in particular, “Going to rain tomorrow. First wet setup this season. The boys’ll like that.”
Beside my van was the midway, four trucks, parked two by two to form an alley leading to the empty space where the big top would rise. Each red-and-yellow truck looked like a huge box of animal crackers. Their sides advertised wild animals, a Punch and Judy show, a snake trainer, elephants, Zendora (a lightly clad lady who, through an illusionist’s trick, was missing her middle), a magician, an India-rubber girl, a fire-eating clown, popcorn, cotton candy, snow cones, hot dogs, and giant apes. The giant apes were making all the racket.
The seventy-two side poles of the big top, each 12 ½ feet tall and white with a red tip, were laid out, waiting to be used, in a large circle, radiating from where the perimeter of the big top would be, like the rays of a child’s crayoned sun. The larger quarter-poles—thirty red ones 27 feet tall and twenty blue ones 32 feet tall—were also lying on the pavement in place, within the circle of side poles, waiting to be fitted into the grommets in the tent, raised, and guyed to the stakes. The four king poles, each 55 feet tall, were lying with their ends on the marks Noderer had chalked.
When the big top was up, it would enclose an oval 327 feet long and 180 feet wide, and it would be 55 feet tall, 60 feet to the top of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers flags that flew from the king poles. Each of the three rings would be 42 feet in diameter, a size that has been traditional ever since it was measured two centuries ago in England, in Philip Astley’s amphitheater, the first modern circus.
Tim Stinson, the circus’s national director of promotion and public relations, was standing in the midway, watching Sue, one of the elephants, rock back and forth from one forefoot to the other. He was in his mid-thirties, slight, with a direct, friendly gaze. His face had the creases of someone who worked outdoors and squinted into the sun and wind a lot.