Moving the circus

| April 01, 2006

Working in the circus leads to some unusual work environments.

Flags and streamers pop in the wind. Elephants and llamas trumpet and snort. Men and women pitch tents, cook hotdogs, rehearse their acts and repair equipment.

Some call circuses the greatest shows on earth. Whether one, three or five rings, they are a spectacle of entertainment where old-fashioned meets modern. But it’s not all flying daggers, jumping through flaming hoops and taming tigers to thrill ticket holders. Circus life is hard work, and nothing is harder than moving it.

For that, circuses need truckers.

“Lots of us have our CDL,” says John Pugh, manager and owner of Cole Brothers Circus, referring to his stable of circus workers, truck mechanics and stagehands.

Pugh, originally from London, got into the circus business 45 years ago as an acrobat. He came to America in 1961, and after getting injured decided to try his hand at management.

“I handle most of the financial and physical aspects of the job,” Pugh says, and by physical he means getting everyone and all the equipment for the three-ring circus from town to town. “We have 27 big rigs working right now.”

The circus even has a maintenance truck full of spare tires, engine parts and any other gadgetry that might need replacing.

A staff of four mechanics rides with the circus, and they spend their days repairing suspensions, broken-down engines and malfunctioning air lifts. “They’re all from Bulgaria, and I pay them about $1,500 a week, plus expenses and [work] visas,” Pugh says. “These guys work till the job is done.

The mechanics stay busy, so busy that they brush off nosy reporters with an accented, “I’m busy now,” before climbing back under a rig to work.

Cole Brothers changes towns every three or four days – “We stay in New York for five weeks,” an excited Pugh brags, clearly proud of the business in the highly populated area – but only travels about 11,000 miles a year.

“We travel from mid-March to Thanksgiving,” Pugh says.

He also runs a truck licensing school in Deland, Fla. “We give the driving, not the written, exams,” Pugh says.

Many of Pugh’s circus drivers have been certified through his school.

It is not unusual for owners to pair up circuses and trucking businesses. The Carson Barnes Circus and Miller Equipment Company have the same owner.

Lyn Pavelka, 49, has been a truck mechanic with Carson Barnes for 20 years. “They rode through my town and I thought it was a good job, so I hooked up with them,” Pavelka says.

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