Moving the circus

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.

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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.

Pavelka works truck and ride maintenance. “We usually start by 6 a.m. and are set up by noon,” Pavelka says. He pulls the attractions down sometime before 7:30 p.m., depending on how many shows play that day. “It’s a big deal. We’re the biggest rolling show left. We’re five rings.”

It takes a lot to organize, build and fill those five rings, and the Carson Barnes staff is large and diverse. Comprised of Americans, Ukrainians, Peruvians and many other nationalities, it is common to hear a varied cacophony of languages mixed with the grunt and whine of machinery and various exotic animal calls. The Carson Barnes show includes elephants, llamas, pygmy goats, camels, zebras and jungle cats.

The circus performers and truckers share accommodation in campers and RVs. But their moving homes aren’t without luxuries – Direct TV receivers dot the grounds.

Some circus staff members haul freight for major carriers in the months when the circus is not running.

Sergy Dotseuko, 57, is one such driver. He is from Ukraine and was an acrobat, a Russian bar specialist, for 45 years but quit performing years ago. Now he drives a Western Star for Carson Barnes Circus.

“I’m done now, I’m old,” says Dotseuko. “Now I’m a teacher and help kids.”

Fair Play
CDL-holding staffers help carnivals and fairs travel thousands of miles

Other than the fact that one features a tent and one doesn’t, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between a circus and a fair.

Both feature animals, shows, contests and spectacle. And both are hauled around by big rigs.

Wade Shows owns more than 100 amusement rides and attractions and services that are used by more than 15 million people each year.

But as popular as Wade Shows is, it would be nothing without Friendly Leasing, the trucking company owned by the same man who owns Wade, Frank Zaitshik.

Kevin Bocley, 33, was born into the fair business and now helps run the Wade Shows fair. He says Friendly Leasing owns 70 trucks, split evenly between offices in Spring Hill, Fla., and Muskegon, Mich.

These days the fair circuit is 26,000 miles round-trip, down from 18,000 miles one-way before rerouting, Bocley says.

Even with the reduction in miles, the fair still sees a lot of the country. “We go as far as Miami, Delaware, New York, North Carolina,” Bocley says. “Oklahoma City is my favorite because the people are nice.”

Fair season runs longer than circus season – “Our first day is Jan. 10. Nov. 13 is the last day,” says Bocley.

Twenty-five of the fair’s staff members have commercial driver’s licenses, but all of those people do more than drive. Some are electricians, or help assemble rides or work security.

“People will run up and steal [stuffed teddy] bears, snatch tickets, and we have to stop them,” Bocley says.

When hiring workers for the fair, a CDL is a big plus in Bocley’s book. “If you can handle a ride and have a CDL, you can do a lot,” he says.

Donnie Reid, 49, is one such person. He has worked with fairs for 20 years.

“I do a little bit of everything. Drive, move, maintenance,” Reid says. “It’s hard to describe all of what I do.”

But even with hard workers like Reid and 25 CDL holders on staff, Wade Shows/Friendly Leasing still has to call in the big guns sometimes because their equipment can’t handle the load.

“We can handle 100 miles ourselves,” Reid says. “If we go 600 miles, we have to use Swift.”

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