Dick Garden drove in with the first vehicle Tuesday morning from Concord, N.C., near Charlotte, hours before the Piccadilly Circus' two shows inside the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. Almost 70 years old, he loves the lifestyle.
"I was born in it," said the longtime manager, standing on the loading dock, "like most of us."
His son and co-manager, Zack Garden, who minutes later oversaw setup of Piccadilly's performance ring, lights, a motorcycle globe, ticket booths and everything else in this road show, agreed.
"I couldn't imagine doing anything else," said the father of two, the fourth generation of Gardens in the circus world. "It's the greatest job in the world."
Myrtle Beach sits in the middle of having two circuses roll in and out of town within a week. The Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars, from DeLand, Fla., near Dayton Beach, will erect its tent for shows at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, across from the convention center in the former Myrtle Square Mall parking lot.
Mobility matters most for a circus, because the entourage of various recreational vehicles and trucks hits the road again the evening after a performance to start a whole new cycle in another city or state.
Zack Garden, who steers a semi-trailer that houses sleepers for 15 people in the front half, and equipment in the rear, said arranging the circus stage takes about 90 minutes, and disassembly takes about 30 minutes. It's a routine the crew has down pat, and performers and circus hands team up to fulfill many roles to make the system work.
"Everybody knows where everything goes," Zack Garden said as a crew hoisted light panels onto poles around the ring. "Setup never changes. Everything has its place."
Garden, who has spent much of his life in circuses, said by age 13, he had visited five countries and 49 states. Although Piccadilly utilizes only an indoor circus unit this year, with plans to bring back a tent unit next year, he finds its presentation "homey and cozy" with about 50 people overall and about 20 animals, including three monkeys and a kangaroo.
The Piccadilly caravan, based in Sarasota, Fla., departed Tuesday night, heading back toward Charlotte for its next stop, in Fort Mill, on Thursday.
Zack Garden said typically he'll pull out with his rig 45 minutes after the show ends, when elephant rides continue for patrons staying afterward.
He quoted a common question from his 2-year-old daughter, already comfortable atop a pachyderm in the show: "We're ready to go to the next town, Daddy?"
Cuinn Griffin, promotional director for Piccadilly, said crews start taking down parts of the circus stage even during a show, in the background.
"You do a new town every day, pretty much," he said, summarizing a coast-to-coast calendar lasting from February into December, with "a week or two off here and there."
Matching wants with likes
Today, Cole Bros. begins three days of shows in Ladson, north of Charleston, before trucking up the coast to head to Myrtle Beach with a tent for its three rings and bleachers and seats. After its Grand Strand gig, the troupe will set up at Wilmington International Airport for four days through April 10.
Eric Aeuiar and his father and younger sister ride inside a globe on motorcycles for 10 minutes in each show. Speaking by phone Monday after arriving in Brunswick, Ga., the 16-year-old spoke about his joy of a career begun at a young age, balanced with home schoolwork.
"It's what we really want to do and really like to do," he said, eager to have his own circus one day.
Aeuiar finds take-down after a show easier than set-up, and his family joins many other fellow performers in setting up seats around the rings. All the other circus colleagues make up an even bigger family, he said.
Dan Baltulonis, among the Cole Bros. marketing crew, said its circus comprises about 100 people, "from the shoveler of the elephants' quarters up to the owner." The animal cast includes two elephants, six tigers, as well as some dogs, horses and ponies.
A setup hand will arrive the day before the caravan, Baltulonis said, and use spray paint "with little dots and arrows" to mark each quadrant of the show site for "each truck, each stake, each animal compound." About 150 stakes alone will secure the tent, which measures about 300 feet long, 200 feet wide and 60 feet high.
"It's down to a science," Baltulonis said, explaining that during World War I, military officials were sent in to watch how circuses organized their setup and transportation. "Because we're in town for such a short time, we're packing and unpacking quickly. It really is very scientifically staged and thought out."
He estimates setup takes eight hours, from the first stake driven in the ground through myriad inspections, then after the final show in a city, "it all comes down" in about five to six hours, depending on the weather.
"We're basically putting in rewind," Baltulonis said, of filling more than 60 vehicles with people and equipment, "and packing it up and doing it all over again, and traveling throughout the night."
Performers recharge their appetite to perform in house, too. Cole Bros. carries its own dining facility, a cookhouse.
"We have two cooks, and they cook three meals a day for nine months straight," Baltulonis said, of a season begun in mid-March and going past Thanksgiving, covering 20 to 25 states.
Advancing the cause
Baltulonis said marketing each city's shows begins weeks in advance and eight staffers share the duties. H said promoting the Ladson, Florence and Myrtle Beach shows has been ongoing since Feb. 28. He'll stay in the Palmetto State until a day after the last show. He also enjoys seeing people he has met through past marketing runs in the past decade.
"Now I have friends whom I have met through the circus," he said, "whom I get to see every time I am here."
With its own print shop, Cole Bros. circulates its show information through coupons, tickets, posters, billboards and media interviews.
Donna Lovejoy of Socastee knows those avenues all too well. Piccadilly hired her to tout its show the past few weeks. She said she passed out coupons and fliers and visited four day-care centers dressed as Ha-Ha the Clown.
"I bought my first clown costume from a Cole Bros. circus clown," she said, "about 14 years ago."
Performing as Ha-Ha and marching in circuses when they pay visits occupies Lovejoy, also a professional magician.
"This is my full-time job," she said, leading to the greatest reward she brings home: "The smiles from the kids, the amazement in their eyes when the magic happens and they don't know how it happened."
Lovejoy's favorite aspect in watching a circus remain the clowns and their comedy.
"The high-wire walkers, too," she said. "They amaze me."
Like clowns, who can entertain solely by mime, even another language can't limit circus officials who welcome performers from far-away lands such as South America and the Far East.
Piccadilly has added five young women from China who draw applause nightly with their blend of contortions, plate spinning and balancing one another on their teeth.
Although they don't speak any English, Zack Garden said officials have overcome "a huge language barrier" with 21st-century technology.
With an iPhone, he and the girls trade their communications by text, which shows up translated on their respective receiving ends.