Watching the circus in a darkened arena, with the spotlights reflecting on the shimmering spangles and tension filling the air as the high-wire artists gingerly make their way across a taut strand of cable, it's easy to forget the mammoth behind-the-scenes efforts that go into creating the three-ring spectacle - two and one-half hours of trapeze flyers, high-wire daredevils, clowns, elephants (lots of elephants), tigers, more clowns, trained horses, trained dogs . . . you know what goes into the making of a circus.
Or do you?That well-choreographed spectacle didn't just come together overnight. (The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opens a 5-day, 11-performance run on Wednesday, Sept. 26, in the Salt Palace.)
Circus producer/president Kenneth Feld (and before him, his late father Irvin) and his production team - including former Utahn Tim Holst - are continually beating the bushes to find new and exciting acts for "The Greatest Show on Earth."
It takes years of detailed legwork before an act finds itself in one of the RB and B&B Circus' three rings and in the spotlight for what has become the greatest, grandest, most famous circus of them all.
We talked with Associate Producer Holst twice in recent weeks, once over the phone when we happened to catch him at his office in Venice, Fla.,(a really rare event, considering he probably spends more thatn three-fourths of his time flying to such far-flung locales as China, Mongolia, Africa and Eastern Europe) and just this week, when he made a short trip through Utah.
Just the work involved in bringing young animal trainer Flavio Togni and his entourage to the United States would fill a good-sized book.
The entire "blue unit" of the circus was designed around the Togni family, which is responsible for four major acts during this season's performances. (The circus has two completely separate companies - the "blue unit" and the "red unit" each mounted in alternate years, and out on the road for a two-year run.)
But Feld and Holst didn't just fly over to VErona, Italy, one morning, sign a bunch of contacts, and bring everyone back with them on the return flight.
Holst said the initial work in luring the Tognis to the United States started nearly 10 years ago, when Kenneth Feld's father, irvin, saw them perform in Monte Carlo.
Monte Carlo is practically the center of the universe for those in the circus industry. Every year, the very best circus acts fro throughout Europe flock to Monte Carlo to be seen and critiqued. Prizees are awarded to the top performers, and talen scouts from the world's largest circuses are always on hand to search out the most unusual, attention-grabbing acts they can find.
During the first trip, Irvin Feld saw the Tongi family perform, but neither side felt the timing was right. "However, one day, you will perform in our circus," Feld told Flavio Togni.
A few years later, in 1986, Kenneth Feld and Tim Holst went to Monte Carlow for another look-see. This time they also followed the Tognis to Germany, where they were performing, and began formal contract negotiations.
"I can honestly say that from February 1989 until they arrived in November, I was a nonstop commuter, going back and forth from the United States to Italy and Europe several times, working out all the logistics involved," Holst said.
Holst, who has risen through the ranks from circus clown to singing ringmaster to performance director to No. 2 man in the circus' corporate structure, was a little reluctant to talk to us. Not because he's afraid of divulging any hush-hush industry secrets, but because he felt that Kenneth Feld is the man who deserves the credit for developing the circus talent that patrons see when the show comes to town.
But, while the busk stops at Feld's desk, a lot of the detail work is done by Holst.
The Togni entourage included more than just the family and employees.
There were more than 40 horses, which by themselves were a logistical nightmare. Holst plowed through red tape and paperwork involving agencies in two governments - the United States and Italy - in getting them out of one country and into the other.
Everyone and everything had to be in place by mid-November, when the shows are mounted in Florida. So Holst had to be sure all the horses, each one with its own complex stack of papers, arrived in the U.S. in plenty of time for the required quarantine period. (There are strict regulations governing the importation of equine animals, and Holst is not looking forward to similar regulations covering cloven-hooved animals for an act he's now working on bringing from Mongolia.)
"All the horses had to be tested. If they test for certain kind jof disease, then they have to be shipped back," said Holst.
The horses were flown, not to Florida, but into official quarantine stations in New Jersey and upstate New York, along with grooms provided by the Togni family. Two of the horses did, in fact, test positive for a disease and had to be returned to Italy .
meanwhile, Holst also had to work out details on having the elephants and rhinoceros shipped over, along with the necessary equipment for the Tognis rountines.
A container carogo ship was retrofitted in a German shipyard, where there were all kinds of problems to be considered: providing water and feed for 15 elephants and the rare white rhino, sleeping arrangements for the workers (many modern container ships adre so automated that only minimal space is needed for the crews), designing fo special wooden pallets to facilitate loading and unloading the animals, coordinating the preparation of the ship with the arrival of the animals and the paperwork involved in the deportation of the elephants and rhino from Germany to the United States.
Would the pallets be properly secured?
What if there was rough weather at sea?
The elephants had been accustomed to traveling by train, but not confined to storage containers aboard a ship. What about space to allow them to be exercised?
Holst had to iron out the details -, trying to consider all the normal things, such as hay, feed, water, health certificates, permits, etc. - in what was not a normal move.
The time and effort spent on bringing the Tognis to the United States "speaks highly of Kenneth Feld and his desire to always look for and bring fresh talent to the States. There are easier courses of action, but that's not how he operates. The challenge is always there to come up with the unusual and the different," said Holst.
And the embraces marketing and other entertainment concepts in addition to new talent in the center ring.
Already, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is experimenting with retail stores in select East Coast markets, featuring circus-related apparel, model circus trains and high-quality items, including juggling equipment. A possible offshoot of these stores, said Holst, might be a complete party-planning service department.
Meanwhile, Feld and Holst are still scouting around and looking ahead. The 1991 "red unit show (taht Salt Lake City gets next year), may be designed entirely around one clown, which Holst discovered in Italy. Then there's a yak act from Mongolia on the drawing boards.
From yuk-yuks to yaks.
Life for Kenneth Feld and Tim Holst is never dull.