“I get to watch this happening at least once a week,” said Katya Quiroga, standing and observing as a crew of workers prepare to raise the Circus Vargas big top at the Petaluma Fairgrounds, on Tuesday afternoon. Circus Vargas will be performing in and around that tent for several performances from Thursday, September 14 to Monday, September 17. Right now, the work area is full of trucks and forklifts, resembling a construction site more than a circus.
Except for that enormous blue blob now rising into the air.
Quiroga allowed that the sight of an circus tent rising from the back of truck, suspended from cables linked to a pair of towering metal frames, never grows old. “It takes about twenty-five of us to raise the tent, and there are fifty people in the show, so everyone helps out who can, including performers. I love it. A little part of me gets so thrilled, every single time that tent goes up.”
Quiroga and her husband Nelson have owned Circus Vargas since 2005.
“We met at Circus Vargas,” mentions Quiroga, of her relationship with Nelson. Their daughters Daniella and Marianna are now also performers in the circus.
The California-based organization, created by the late Clifford Vargas, was founded in 1969, and has changed hands a few times. It’s changed in many ways, including phasing out all animal acts (even equestrian acts) a few years ago, and introducing more theatrical elements, like storylines, non-traditional costumes, and ever-changing themes. The current show, for example, title “SteamCirque,” incorporates many steampunk elements.
That said, the Quirogos, both longtime circus people (Katya’s father, in fact, is the lead supervisiors guiding the raising of the tent at this moment), are committed to keeping the tradition of the American circus alive.
“The original owner actually is the one who brought our family to this country, and to this company,” explained Quiroga, originally from Holland, now an American citizen. “That’s one of the reasons we decided to buy the show. Because it had closed, and it’s the reason we came to America. A tradition like this shouldn’t go down in history. We wanted to keep it alive. So we bought it.”
That was twelve years ago. Much has changed since then.
With the shuttering in March of the legendary Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Quiroga says that Circus Vargas is now the largest traveling American-based circus. She adds that she and Nelson recognize that with Ringling Brothers gone, there will be new opportunities for Circus Vargus to grow and expand.
Much like the vast blue canvass currently expanding to fill the lawn at the fairgrounds.
“We’re a little behind schedule,” Quiroga noted, as a small group of workers begin to attach wires to the now fifty-five-foot-high tent, preparing to pull the sides out, at which point it will clearly resemble the iconic “big top” that so many associate with a circus. The process of setting up the circus takes about 18 hours from start to finish. “We’ll go tonight until about ten o’clock,” said Quiroga. “Then we’ll get started tomorrow at 7 in the morning. It should be done at about five p.m. and ready for the first audiences on Thursday.”
In previous years, the tent would have been raised using the labor of elephants. In fact, in the film “Water for Elephants,” it was Circus Vargas show on screen at the beginning of the movie. Quiroga agreed that elephants were a spectacular thing to see, but added that phasing out such animals was an important move if the circus was to continue.
CIRCUS VARGAS presents ‘SteamCirque’
Thursday, September 14 – 7:30 p.m.
Friday, September 15 – 4:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 16 – 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m.;
Sunday, September 17 – 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 7 p.m.
Monday, September 18 – 6:30 p.m.
Where: Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma
How much: $17-$76
Information: CircusVargas.com or call 877-GOT-FUN1