Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Joel Hannah: The Setup

When Joel Hannah signed on as a circus rigger in the summer of 1976, there was no way he could have known how much hard work was ahead of him. In the third installment of "Circus Kirk," he recalls the job of setting up and pulling down the circus tent. The video above shows how another little circus handled the same job. (The big leagues have way more manpower.) When you peruse YouTube, you find that the raising and lowering of circus tents constitutes its own genre, and from the number of views, it's safe to say that the big top continues to enthrall audiences with a magic all its own.

Setting up the variety of tents was a job which required everyone's undivided attention. The Big Top setup was begun by pulling three large aluminum poles into the air by a crew of as many people as were available and could fit on the rope. The canvas was hoisted to the top of these poles by a series of ropes and pulleys, again with brute strength. Smaller poles were inserted into the outer edge of the canvas and "tied off" to the stakes that had been driven moments before. Intermediate poles were put in place, side walls hung, and the tent was up: now to fill it.

Bleachers to hold 1,500 people were carried in piece by piece and assembled. Four other riggers and myself kept busy setting up props and driving stakes to secure the arial acts. By lunchtime everything was set. A brief repast led to a short siesta before the two o'clock performance.

The afternoon show was followed by a two-hour break and then supper. Most everybody took this time to explore the community, having only seen it in passing that morning. Shopping, sightseeing, and locating the local tavern were high on the list of things to do. We got used to the stares and remarks people made as we passed by, but generally the public was very friendly and interested in talking with us.

Tents were torn down after the evening performance and loaded onto the trucks for the next day's trip. Local kids were recruited for a couple of bucks to help take down the bleachers and load them. Their eagerness was considerable. We often had to turn them away, there were so many. By 11 p.m. most of the crew were either headed to bed or back to the local tavern to close it down.

I remember more than once at the end of the day, looking at the empty lot strewn with popcorn boxes and reflecting on the activity that had taken place there, being amazed that so much could come and go in such little time.

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