Legendary producer/showman P.T. Barnum would feel right at home in the 1998 edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, coming Sept. 30-Oct. 4 to the Delta Center.

It's a throwback to the days when huge tents were raised in a vacant lot on the outskirts of town and there was a midway with dozens of "sideshow" attractions - the Bearded Lady . . . sword-swallowers . . . spangled showgirls . . . maybe even a rare, two-headed calf.Well, there's no dusty midway and the canvas tents have long since been replaced by air-conditioned arenas. But throngs of "children of all ages" attending this year's three-ring spectacle will be treated to a parade of old-fashioned sideshow performers.

Instead of patrons having to traipse from tent to tent, being lured by the spiel of ticket-sellers urging them to "Step right up . . . " producer Kenneth Feld is bringing such oddities as Vesuvius, the Human Volcano; Kahn, billed as the world's tallest man; Michu, said to be the world's smallest man; and Marina, "the Lady in the Cube" right into the arena as part of the two-hour extravaganza's "Sideshow Sensations."

Circusgoers looking for such traditional acts as high-wire artists, trapeze performers, dozens of clowns and trained elephants (and dogs and horses) won't be disappointed, either.

Former Utahn Tim Holst, the Feld Entertainment talent scout whose family lives in Salt Lake, and who constantly travels the globe in search of new and different circus acts, has brought talent from South Africa, Pakistan, Russia, Romania, Vietnam, Hungary, Mongolia, Uruguay, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico . . . and even Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Holst's official title is vice president production & talent, but it's obvious he doesn't spend much time sitting at a desk in Vienna, Va., where the corporate offices are located. Running in and out of airports is more likely.

After seeing a performance of the latest circus a few weeks ago in Oakland, Calif., some of the performers were available for interviews. In years past, some of these interviews have involved multiple translators, but not this time.

- ONE OF THE MOST DELIGHTFUL acts this year is Lloyd's Old English Sheep Dogs, a ringful of adorable, shaggy canines trained and presented by Juan Raul Rodriguez, a former Argentinian clown. (The "Lloyd's" is Raul's Scottish-born wife's maiden name).

The dogs look like they're having nearly as much fun as the audience. They scramble up ladders, then whoosh down large, see-through chutes. One travels around the ring on a scooter. Others jump through rings and over barrels.

While others of their breed are out there, somewhere, helping ranchers herd the sheep, Raul's dogs are cavorting in their three-ring playground.

Rodgriguez said the dogs aren't difficult to train.

"I check to see what they like to do. If they enjoy sliding down the chutes, I let them do that. They have their own personalities," said Rodriguez, who was originally a clown in an Argentinian circus family.

Like Great Danes, the sheep dogs have sizeable appetites, but they're well treated on the road. The canines have their own, air conditioned travel trailer and a large exercise pen.

Unlike family pets, "we spend all day with them. When most people go to work, they leave their pets at home. We're with our dogs 24 hours a day," Rodriguez noted.

- EVEN RINGMASTERS are entitled to a midlife crisis.

Just ask Jim Ragona, who was probably fated to become part of the circus. He was born in Bridgeport, Conn. - precisely 27 steps from the house where P.T. Barnum once lived.

With a background in theater, including an acting degree from the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, he joined the circus 17 years ago after successfully auditioning for the role of Singing Ringmaster.

Then, four years ago, he felt like he needed a change. He moved behind-the-scenes as a performance director and later assisted Holst in scouting for new talent.

But Ragona noted during an interview that almost immediately, he missed being in the center of all the action.

"Traveling the world is not as romantic as it sounds," he said. "I spent two years traveling with Tim Holst. That first year, I was home for only 44 days. The rest of the time we spent running for air-planes.

"I love flying - that's what I do for a hobby. But what wasn't great was the loneliness. I've always been surrounded by people, but every night it was just me, alone in a hotel room, in cities where I knew no one. I'd done the tourist thing, of course. I've seen Red Square . . . it was very lovely . . . but now what do I do?"

What he did was get back into the ring.

"I thought that I was too old to be surrounded by kids performing, but what I didn't take into account was how much I really needed to do that. My hat is off to Tim Holst. He is a road warrior. But, for me, every once in awhile, I have to cook my own food. I have to whip up some of Mama's pasta. Tim can bounce from hotel room to hotel room for months at a time. I'm just not made like that."

But it also took some work to convince management that he could, indeed, combine both the "ringmaster" and "performance director" roles at one time.

During more than a dozen years as ringmaster, Ragona found that he was deeply involved with everyone's lives.

"Sometimes you're their best friend. Sometime you're their father confessor. And sometimes the psychologist or even the mean guy. I was always doing that - so, to me, this isn't such a great transition.

"I know, intrinsically, how the circus works. What my job is, is to make sure that the show happens the way the director and producer intended it to happen, and the best way I know how to do that is to be part of it - to be in the spotlight, literally driving the boat. I like driving the boat."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Ringling Bros. Circus in S.L. Sept. 30-Oct. 4

"The Greatest Show on Earth" will play for nine performances at the Delta Center, Wednesday-Sunday, Sept. 30-Oct. 4.

Performance times for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are 7 p.m. Sept. 30 & Oct. 1; 4 & 7:30 p.m., Oct. 2; 11 a.m. and 3:30 & 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3; and 1:30 & 5:30 p.m. Oct. 4.

All seats are reserved. Ticket prices start at $9.50. There is also a $3 ticket for children under 12 for some specified performances. On opening night only, all seats are $5 off. Tickets for all shows are avail-able through Smith'sTix outlets (467-8499 or 1-800-888-8499) or the Delta Center box office (325-7328). For group sales, call 325-2548.

All ticketholders are invited to arrive one hour early to participate in the hands-on "Three Ring Adventure," when several performers interact with patrons on the arena floor.

Also, for the first time since 1928, there will be an old-fashioned circus parade through downtown Salt Lake City beginning at noon Thursday, Oct. 1.

Three antique circus wagons from the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., are being brought to Utah for the parade.

In addition to several of this year's headliners, the Utah Marine Color Guard and the Kearns High School marching band will participate in the parade, which will include local dignitaries, horse-drawn carriages and antique convertibles.

The parade will start at South Temple and Main Street, traveling down Main to 300 South.

The public is also invited to welcome the arrival of the circus train at approximately 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at the Union Pacific depot behind the Delta Center.