Life under the big top

Traveling with the circus is a family affair
By: ToLewis, The Press Tribune
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Not only is life truly a circus, it is also a family affair for many traveling circus performers. Vittorio Arrata, general manager of Circus Vargas, is a former tightrope walker and has been working for Circus Vargas since 1980. “I grew up in the circus,” he said. “My dad was an acrobat. I learned from 3 years old how to walk on the tightrope.” Although Arrata is a long way from his native Italy, the lessons he learned growing up in a family of traveling circus performers have been passed on through the generations. “From the beginning in Italy, all the performers set up the tent, too,” he said. “It’s a family show, so everybody works.” Arrata, whose daughter Katya Quiroga-Tabares purchased Circus Vargas in 2005, now has three generations of family members working on the show, which set up its big top at the Westfield Galleria at Roseville Tuesday. And Arrata is not alone. Most of the Circus Vargas cast and crew, which amasses to more than 60 people, travels with their families on the road. “Almost everybody here is related somehow,” said contortionist Hayley Kent. “All the kids’ moms, dads, cousins and uncles are performing in the show.” Kent, a former gymnast, began working as a contortionist for a circus in Los Angeles when she was 14 years old and has been with Circus Vargas for a little less than a year. “When I graduated high school, I started working for Circus Vargas,” she said. Kent is one of many performers who teaches the kids who travel with the show acrobatics, handstands and other circus tricks. “I try to teach them how to hopefully work in the circus when they are older so they can pass on the legacy,” Kent said. “They are busy kids.” Busy kids they are indeed. Arrata said an accredited school teacher also travels with the show to give the children, whose ages range from 3 to 16, the full education required by the state of California. Ringmaster Ted McRae has been working in the business since 1995 and raised his family while traveling with the circus. He said he fell into the profession almost by accident. “Somebody called me up and asked if I’d like to be in the circus,” McRae said. “I was a forklift driver at the time. I said yes.” A typical day for McRae begins around noon. Since he lives full time in his RV with his wife and children, he says there is always something to fix and plenty to do. When he is not setting up his drum set in preparation for a show, his days are usually filled with common chores such as grocery shopping and picking up supplies for the RV. “The kids have gotten used to it,” McRae said. “We are in a tight space, which is one of the challenges. People who live in houses or apartments can go into another room to get away, but there is not another room.” Circus Vargas, which is performing in Roseville through Monday, travels throughout California for almost 10 months out of the year. When the circus arrives in any given town, the performers’ roles transform into that of construction crew as they work for almost two full days setting up the “big top.” “To put this together and keep things going really takes a lot of professionalism,” Kent said. The circus will typically perform one show each weeknight and three shows each day on weekends. Kent said on days where she performs three shows, the entire day is dedicated to the circus — waking up early, putting on makeup and getting into costume. As a contortionist, Kent says she has to be really careful with her body and make sure she doesn’t get injured so she can remain flexible for her act. “I like to work,” Kent said. “It’s hard sometimes for me to not always be training or working, but when I do get a break or a vacation, I just like to go home and relax and be with my family and my friends.” McRae said life in the circus is not that much different from someone who is used to working late hours into the evening. “Our shows are over at 10 p.m.,” McRae said. “You are all pumped up from doing a show, sometimes you eat dinner at 11 p.m. and you don’t go to bed until midnight or later.” While the new Circus Vargas show does not feature any animals, highlights include vignettes depicting the experiences of a traveling circus performer. Each two-hour performance features aerialists, acrobats and comedic clowns as well as trapeze artists, a motorcycle act and a traditional Argentinean gaucho act, where a performer dressed as a cowboy performs with a whip to the sound of drums. For McRae, the highlight of the show is the audience. “The real magic for me is looking out and seeing all the folks having a good time,” McRae said. “Everybody can come to the circus and sit down and have a good time. There are not a lot of places where that happens.” Toby Lewis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TobyLewis_RsvPT. ---------- What: Circus Vargas When: Friday through Monday Where: Westfield Galleria at Roseville Show times: 8 p.m. Friday; 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1, 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday; 6 p.m. Monday. Cost: $15–$60 More info: or (877) 468-3861