The circus' curtain call Moving: The Greatest Show on Earth's final act is the 'load-out' -- packing up and traveling to Washington.

March 23, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

The Greatest Show on Earth made a quiet and little-watched exit across a chilly Lombard Street last night -- a well-rehearsed mass exodus that filled 32 rail coaches, 16 flatcars plus a quartet of animal stock cars.

The departure of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a spring ritual that traditionally happens somewhere in the damp hours of the night and early morning. The circus plays Baltimore and then heads to Washington for Easter.

The orderly progression of exiting -- the "load-out," in circus speak -- began last evening before the final act, unnoticed by the arena's 9,000 closing-night customers.

"Moving night is like playing with a Rubic cube. You always get to the same end, but there might be 15 or 20 ways to get there," said Mark Gaipo, the 27-year-old muscular circus operations manager.

The circus' red touring unit (there's a blue unit, too) started performing the first of its 18 shows here March 12 and played before about 150,000 customers, said Chris Yancey, a promoter for the circus' owner, Feld Entertainment. Last night it was time to leave for Washington, where it will begin performing Wednesday at the MCI Center.

It's a Herculean task, moving a circus.

"Getting out of Baltimore is one of the trickiest maneuvers of the whole tour. I'd rather be going to Chicago -- or Japan. Our time window is so incredibly short. We should be in D.C. before the first commuter train pulls out of the station," said Gaipo.

That means the circus must pack up and get to Washington's Anacostia Yards before a 5: 25 a.m. commuter train leaves Baltimore for Union Station. There can't be a circus train blocking the Maryland Rail Commuter service's way on a Monday morning.

Load-out offers a chance to see the circus performers in a different act -- packing and moving. It also offers an outsider a lesson in jargon and glimpse inside the inner workings of a beloved American entertainment.

Load-out begins well before the last show is over. Trainers lead the first departing animals -- a trio of seals named Gypsy, Minnie and Alicia -- from the building as a batch of tardy patrons take their seats during the first act. The last show is only 12 minutes old.

When the arena's house lights came on at the conclusion of the grand finale at 7: 50 p.m., clowns and other performers dashed around backstage. Dressed in bathrobes and sandals, and still showing touches of hastily washed grease paint, they hurried to get changed for load-out and their piece of "cherry pie" -- extra pay for helping. Outside the arena, eight city police officers, the blue lights on their motorcycles swirling, are escorting a column of circus animals across Lombard Street to Arlington Avenue.

First came 14 elephants, then 17 horses, four zebras, five camels, four goats and three alpacas, all of which boarded rail cars stored near the Mount Clare Junction shopping center in Southwest Baltimore. Not to mention 285 humans -- the performers, trainers and stagehands that make the circus happen.

"The animals take precedent no matter what. The train could be seven hours later, but the animals would still be the first to be fed and exercised," Gaipo said.

As with load-in -- the day the circus arrives and begins setting up -- word has leaked downtown that the streets would soon be filled with a menagerie. "Somebody told me, and I'm here with a camera," said Garth Peterson, assistant general manager of the Lombard Street Holiday Inn.

"The load-out is the kind of thing that attracts die-hard circus fans. It's remarkable for its logistics and coordination," said Richard Flint, a Homeland resident who is a past president of the Circus Historical Society. He watches the events not from a seat, but from a curb on Hopkins Place.

Flint knows the jargon circus people use. "Tear down," an old term used when canvas tents and their supporting poles had to be ripped from the ground, now means taking down rigging and platforms in modern-day arenas.

Another circus term is the "pie car" -- the kitchen-diner on the circus train where performers eat. There was a "pie car junior" parked outside the arena -- a mobile canteen for hungry workers. A "six pack" refers to a schedule of three shows in a day over a two-day period, which is typical on a weekend.

Clowns, teeter board guys, trapeze artists all earned their cherry pie. They rolled away any props -- the three rings, a fake calliope and the show's Pyramids of Egypt used in the grand finale.

Then they took up rubber floor mats. Riggers lowered light bars, and huge amplifiers and trapeze frames suspended from the arena's ceiling. Others wrapped lights and their cables.

"The load-in takes 12 hours. The load-out takes eight," said Yancey. "The overhead rigging is the heaviest stuff."

Once the rigging and the other gear is packed, it is loaded on trucks and hauled to the main circus train of 48 cars set up on CSX tracks at Caton Avenue and Georgetown Road in Southwest Baltimore. That train was slated to leave for Washington early this morning, once the four animal cars arrived and were attached. By dawn, they'd be in the nation's capital, beginning load-in.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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