A A A Running Away with the Circus

Back in 1977 my husband Glen and I ran away with a circus and met the most whole-some, generous and mentally healthy people of our lives. No wonder we all want to run away with the circus. It isn't just a kid thing. It is a freedom of life, choice, imagination, magic and love thing.

Big John Strong and Son International Traveling Circus arrived in the middle of the night, set up their tents and were busy with their hard-working set-up by the time Glen and I arrived, just before dawn, to photograph them setting up the tents, obviously, too late to capture on film.
The night before we read of their coming to town (Santa Barbara, CA a family visit stop off) our imaginations went wild. As photographers, who traveled cross country in an old Cortez motor home (a former IBM instrument truck we built ourselves at parking meters outside our apartment on 34th Street in NYC) which had been fashioned from a cold stark and empty inside up to a tiny but cozy living space with full darkroom, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Little did we know, it really was!

Well, we didn't get the shots we imagined but went about photographing everything we saw, anyway. Since we appeared on the lot before Showtime we were, eyed with suspicion and met by some of the performers who asked what we were doing and if we would send them pictures later. "Sure", we said and they gave us their addresses... well, not exactly addresses since they were always on the road but places they could pick up their mail, which were as diverse as they were.

We photographed the first show, went straight to the darkroom, developed our negatives, made prints and were back on the lot that night to deliver them. That was it. No one had ever sent their promised pictures before. We were hooked and so were they! And so our
journey began.

For them the journey was quick and lead by their semi-tractor trailer, the infamous Blue Truck a.k.a. number 13, who sped like the wind from one location and booking to the next. Even number 13 was a devoted performer who had also run away with the circus. Well not exactly, its predecessor had... which was affectionately called the Blue Truck. This truck was Red but out of memory, history and respect it was always referred to as the Blue Truck.

Behind the Blue Truck, followed a caravan of motor homes, cars with trailers, animal, equipment, food concession, side-show and costume trucks and of course, the owner's trailer which also served as the office. But they were simply to fast for our old gal so if they traveled too far and too fast we would simply meet them at their next location. And we were always greeted and treated like family. So much so that just about every single performer tried to turn us into an act. Glen learned to juggle through patient and loving training by just about everyone and I was given lessons on animal training, from the best, with the goal being turning our sweet but totally independent Afghan Hound, Rufus, into a circus dog. Didn't work.

At first we thought the circus was huge in terms of people and personnel but it didn't take long to learn that everyone wore many hats. The trapeze artists and aerialists sold cotton candy, took tickets and hawked souvenirs; the owner's son, little John, ran the side-show, promoted the circus on stilts at every possible opportunity; the business manager a former IRS agent ;) worked the pony act; Even Neena, the circus' nine year old Indian elephant wore hats which included pulling up the tent, entertaining in the ring, giving rides to children and allowing herself to be photographed by visitors; Big John, ran the show, was the MC with a glittering top hat and received the public in his trailer for their comments and complaints "This circus is too expensive. Every time I turn around there is something else to pay for." complained one mother with three kids. "Well" Big John answered sweetly "That is how we get your money dear."

We were paid in quarters.

There was also a 'front man' who, as the name implies, traveled ahead of the circus with his Military Macaw booking shows. But from time to time he would meet up with us and perform an Ariel act. Well, not exactly.. His bird would. And that bird was a character! When not on the road booking shows the macaw would ride in the elephant truck with Nina and tease her mercilessly. He would give out the commands and she would obey. Sometimes when we were all loaded up and ready to go we could hear what was going on inside her truck "Move up Neena!" the macaw would command and forward she would go. "Move back Neena" and back she would go! This was one tolerant elephant.

We spent three months with our circus family traveling up and down the coast of California and west into the desert from Monterey, to the island of Coronado in San Diego to Shafter to Thousand Oaks (a gathering spot for traveling circus' and carnivals) and beyond and back to towns large and small with no direct in-line bookings.

Wherever they wanted us and were willing to pay, we would go. Except when the circus left for Arizona. By that time we still hadn't developed an act, which was fine with them but it was also too far for our motor home. And so the hugs and tearful good-byes. With the
promises of staying in touch. But like all magic, you simply can't will it to happen. It comes out of the blue, stirs your heart, imagination and soul and then leaves from whence it came.

But, the magic continues....

"Big John Strong, owner of the circus bearing his name, celebrated its 30th anniversary during the 1978 season. The show had a red and blue stripped big top, about an 80 with two 20's and a 30. It traveled on a half dozen well painted and lettered trucks. The show
opened and played several strong weeks in California, then moved east through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Later it went northward to Oklahoma, Kansas, and on to Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. Returning west it went through Kansas on to the Pacific coast in Oregon and Washington. The show played Vancouver, B.C., Sept. 8-10, but the
elephant, Neena, was not permitted to go into Canada as the necessary permit from the Department of the Interior had not been obtained. Big John later moved south along the Pacific coast picking up stands until close of the season. Strong said that the first 7 weeks of 1978 were the best in years and was as profitable to him as the entire 1977 season. Big John also said there had been some rough spots with 2-3 circuses in ahead of many of his dates. He concluded by saying it had been a pretty fair year, terming California stands very good, both Illinois and Iowa good, but the Pacific northwest in the early fall was down due to heavy opposition. The final weeks in California were better. Strong also said he did not have his route published because of heavy opposition. He advised that other shows were playing his route and trying to sign up his sponsors. The Big John Strong show went into quarters at Yucaipa, Calif, where it had moved in 1977
from its long time base in Thousand Oaks."

by Dona Tracy


I found this on "bandwagon" at circushistory.org and my heart skipped a beat!

Submitted by James Zajicek


Photographs courtesy of John Strong III - Big John Strong & Son Circus 1977 - Last Photo 1978


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