Circus Big Tops

by Lee Kolozsy

 The sight of a Circus Big Top gently waving in the breeze is always a treat for the eyes…

For me, it acts as candy for the soul…

A blessing from above, a gift from God, like a Nathan’s hot dog enjoyed in the shadow of the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel…

Or maybe like grabbing the brass ring from a whirling Illions Carousel while a Wurlitzer band organ plays a Sousa march…

In the process of writing an article about canvas, I’m going to have to touch upon some unpleasant and scary memories…

As in every great love affair, the moments of joy, pleasure, and ecstasy, are invariably balanced by episodes of frustration, rage, and terror…

The soil is your ally and the wind is the enemy. Pray that the stakes hold while the poles dance under the Big Top...

I have forever been in a somewhat reluctant love/hate relationship with canvas…

I came to love the Big Top when I first realized that it was my home, a constant in a world of change, wherever we travelled, there it was, everything else different, the canvas, constant…

As a small child, I spent quite a bit of time in my playpen, an elephant tub turned upside down, while my parents practiced between performances in their allocated hour under the European Chapiteaus…

I love what goes on under the Big Top…

I just hate the process of getting the rag in the air…

Anyone who knows what a marlinspike, a leather palm, and a power stitcher are, will understand what I mean. If you know what it means to lace a section, reeve a block, and hoist the bale ring, you will surely sympathize…

I have suffered from cramps that lasted for weeks from splicing, sewing, patching, and then raising the rag, with fingers crossed, hoping and praying that it will hold together long enough to pay for the new top…

I have developed an allergy to canvas from my days under the Big Top...

I learned my canvas from Roger and Harold Barnes, and the late great Johnny Walker...

These men knew more about the Big Tops than anyone alive today...

Gandy dancers, stake driving chants, “Weave it Reeve it, Heave it”...

Laying out the stake lines is where it all begins, I like to carry a light rope pattern with knots where the stakes belong, after starting the stakes we coil it up till next setup…

Some canvas bosses lay out the top and ropes and drive the stakes, I have found that if you miscalculate, moving the light rope pattern is way easier…

Driving the stakes is an art in itself…

The expression “gandy dancers” originated with the railroads, this refers to the ring of men surrounding the stake, who constitute the stake driving gang, with each man striking the stake head in sequence, swinging as heavy a sledge hammer as his skill level and strength can manage…

They perform this task in perfect co-ordination synchronizing their swings so that the hammers strike the stake head with machine gun rapidity in an unbroken rhythm until it is done…

A great artistic representation of this long gone phenomenon is an animated sequence in a scene from Disney’s classic Circus film “Dumbo”…

Mechanical stake drivers are fascinating in their many Rube Goldberg incarnations. The variety of contraptions I have seen over the years to both drive down and pull up these anchors is amazing…

Tent stakes are a science unto themselves…

Old Showmen will doubtless remember what a gear head is. These are stakes salvaged from auto junkyards that previously served as drive axles for model A Fords. These hardened steel alloy stakes were quite dangerous as more than one Showman I am acquainted with was permanently blinded in one eye from catching a metal shrapnel splinter moving with the velocity of a bullet. I can’t begin to imagine how many of these I have splintered over the years, and now I find out that they are worth hundreds of dollars each, in any condition, as they are being reconditioned for the parts trade…

The sparks from driving these stakes at night often resembled a miniature fireworks show…

Today we have excellent metal stakes manufactured by Anchor industries specifically for the tents industry…

When the soil is too sandy or loose to hold a metal stake, we often used wooden stakes, these resembled a farm fencepost sharpened to a point at one end, and fitted with an iron ring at the other, much like a miniature barrel, to prevent splintering…

With the stakes in the ground, the real work begins…

Spread the canvas…

Now there is canvas and there is canvas…

Canvas was invented before the Roman Empire probably by the Phoenicians. The Romans conquered the world and created an empire, but they could not have done so without canvas…

The invention of canvas led to sailing and it was the sailors who allowed the Romans to carry more fighting men aboard ships, as galley slaves were no longer necessary to row the warships. A military technological advance that led to the Roman Empire, without which there would be no Circus…

The coliseum in Rome employed roman sailors to create great canopies of canvas to provide shade for the spectators. A logistical enterprise of no small scale…

The very word “canvas” comes from Latin. The canvas was woven from hemp fibers, and the Latin name for hemp is “cannabis”…

I seem to have spent my life under canvas…

Real canvas is organic and quite delicate. Amazingly strong, but delicate in the sense that if not taken proper care of, much like an orchid or exotic creature, it will perish from neglect…

Organic canvas woven from natural fibers is susceptible to mildew damage. Most likely to occur if rolled up and stored wet. While unavoidable at times, remember, you’ve only got a couple of days to air it out before mildew starts to consume it…

Before putting canvas away for the off season, old Showmen would sprinkle black pepper and crushed mothballs into it before rolling it up. The mothballs prevent mildew, and the pepper discourages rats from chewing into it…

The big shows would hang the canvas suspended from the rafters in the barns allowing for ventilation and making it difficult for rodents to reach…

Modern tents are usually synthetic material. Mostly vinyl, a petrochemical based laminate of polymer sheets hot laminated in a sandwich of layers of reinforcing mesh and waterproof plastics…

Vinyl tents are no longer sewn as much as welded with heat and pressure, some people swear by them, others swear at them. Waterproof and mildew resistant, the downside is that tearing down in cold weather is like trying to fold plywood…

I’ve seen spools and I’ve seen it muscled, its pure hell either way…

Begin with learning the knots, a good knot is one that holds reliably yet can be released quickly and easily…

This becomes very important in a storm, or simply annoying and time consuming on tear down…

Raise the top…

I’m sorry, till we got to this part, I just thought spreading the canvas was pure hell…

Bale ring or push pole, many hands make short work of it, the more the merrier…

Bale ring tops require the poles to be raised and guyed out first, and then the canvas is hoisted as a bale ring climbs the center poles…

A bale ring is a big iron ring to which is laced the canvas and this is raised by means of block and tackle to the top of the center pole…

Smaller tops are usually push pole style, this is where the canvas is raised by pushing it up with the tent poles…

After getting the rag in the air, setting the quarter poles, and moving the furniture in, you can sidewall the house…

It’s often easier to buck the poles and attach sidewall with your feet on the ground than it is to work from atop a ladder…

Guy it out tight as a banjo string…

The idea is to keep it all so tight that any tighter would pull stakes or rip canvas…

“Funny ropes” are lengths of rope that are tossed over the Big Top and used to further stabilize the billowing canvas in a windstorm, every canvas boss seems to have his own system. Mine is to use everything I have in any way possible. I tie to trucks, trailers, farm implements, generators, cars, dumpsters, fence posts, water spigots, concrete pilings, portolets, and anything heavy that stands still long enough…

Don’t forget to tie up the tails…

Rope laying on the ground has always been considered bad luck because it wicks water and this causes rot…

Then keep an eye on the sky and your fingers crossed… 

Image by John Robinson

 

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