CASPER, Wyo. — Elena Stefanova held her daughter’s hand as they walked across a gravel parking lot to the one-room trailer marked “Schoolhouse.”
Six-year-old Bryanna wore striped tights and a Disney Princess backpack. She hopped two feet at a time up a stepstool into the trailer, parked between the ticket tent and petting zoo Tuesday afternoon.
It was her first day of school at the circus.
Showtime was just hours away for Stefanova, 34, a Bulgarian gymnast who travels with the Carson & Barnes Circus. Later she would be in a pink leotard and a feather headdress, dancing in a ring with a half-dozen other showgirls. For now, she wore sweatpants.
In quiet Bulgarian, Stefanova asked Bryanna to recite the English alphabet inside the classroom. Bryanna did so flawlessly, and Stefanova beamed.
She waved once to her daughter. Bryanna waved back. Stefanova turned toward the Big Top and walked away.
It was time to go to work.
Stefanova isn’t the only performer to have found a family in the Carson & Barnes Circus, which has stopped in Casper for two days of back-to-back shows.
Most of the hands have at least one relative in the crew, said Miguel Palestina, a 29-year-old coordinator for Carson & Barnes. The crew travels like a small city. A school, teacher, kitchen and cooks follow the crew from town to town. Some crew members sleep in bunkhouses pulled by semitrailer trucks.
Palestina knew from his childhood he wanted to run away with the circus. His father had temporarily left his family and corner store in Veracruz, Mexico, to join Carson & Barnes years before Miguel was old enough to join.
“When I was a kid I was wishing, you know, I want to go to the circus,” Palestina said. “I want to be with my dad.”
So when Miguel turned 18 and his father was offered a position with Carson & Barnes, Palestina didn’t think twice. He joined the circus.
“Since then, I am here every year,” Palestina said. He spends eight months on the road with Carson & Barnes, living out of an RV. He spends the rest of his year with family in Mexico.
“I like this life,” he said.
Andres Huaman grew up as a performer in his father’s circus in Peru. He started a hand-balancing act at age 8, has juggled for most of his life, and once performed regularly on the Olympic bars.
Huaman, 45, doesn’t do those things anymore.
“Not with this,” Huaman said, patting his belly. Today, he sets up the circus’s miniature train ride and runs electricity for the Midway, outside the Big Top. His daughter and son both work in circuses.
Marcelino Lozano, 25, lives with his wife, Josie, and 5-year-old son, Maximiliano, on the road with Carson & Barnes.
“When you have a little time, you have to spend it with them,” Lozano said. It was Maximiliano’s birthday recently. Josie spent Tuesday afternoon scouting Casper for a place to take her youngest son and his circus friends to celebrate.
“They get to see a lot of things and do a lot of things that other kids don’t get to do,” Josie said. Her oldest two daughters are ushers at showtime, and her 8-year-old son, Giuliano, works at the petting zoo.
Setting up the Big Top
A caravan of semitrailers and RVs rolled into the parking lots behind the Casper Events Center early Tuesday morning. Nearly 200 sets of hands went to work on a well-known routine — setting up the 30,000-square-foot Big Top tent that would house the signature Carson & Barnes Circus show.
The crew will have done just that 220 times before the tour season ends.
Roberto Mendez, 23, scrambled without a harness up the side of the tent, nimbly tying flaps together as he went. He has never fallen, he said, and doesn’t get nervous. As a kid growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, he scaled palm trees to steal coconuts. He has been with the circus for four years.
Palestina taught him how to climb and tie the tent flaps — a job Palestina did for Carson & Barnes when he started.
When finished, Mendez and the rest of the crew stand back as motors propel the Big Top upward. A semitrailer delivers rows of expandable bleachers, which crews assemble and outfit with handrails.
The whole process takes about four hours, Palestina said.
Ringmaster Brad-Lee “Junior” Pirkl smoked a cigarette backstage in the shade before the show Tuesday. Pirkl, 42, wore a bright blue bow tie and white button-down shirt.
When asked why he ran away with the circus, Pirkl’s answer was simple. “Why not?” he said.
He was growing up in Louisiana when, at age 14, his father, disappointed with Pirkl’s grades, had given him an ultimatum. “He said, ‘You could try to finish school, or you can run away and join the circus,’” Pirkl said. He flew to Sarasota, Fla., to join a circus the next week.
During his circus career, Pirkl has sold popcorn, made cotton candy, taken tickets, taken out garbage, helped set up tents and tacked up posters. Today, he is the voice of the Carson & Barnes Circus.
“I love everything about this business,” he said. “You name it, I’ve done it.”
At a quick nod from a nearby crew member, Pirkl hopped from the trunk where he had been sitting and buttoned his sequined vest. He pulled each arm through a dark blue overcoat and grabbed a cordless microphone.
Elena Stefanova hurried past in white high heels. More showgirls crowded into the backstage, trading high-fives and laughing.
Pirkl spoke into the microphone from behind a curtain. His voice boomed.
The curtain opened. Showgirls straightened their shoulders. One by one, they paraded into the ring, and the show began.