For the week of July 8 thru July 14, 1998  

Culpepper & Merriweather’s one-night stand

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Right this way. Come one, come all, young and old, children of all ages, see the elephants, look at the daring young ladies on the flying trapeze defy death – and catch a glimpse of vanishing Americana.

Yep, like the buggy whip, the manual typewriter, the black and white TV set with rabbit ears antenna, and automobiles with names such as Nash, Packard and LaSalle, the small, family-owned circus that travels America’s back roads eking out a skimpy existence with one-night stands is becoming a curiosity of the past.

Less than a dozen – perhaps as few as nine – still operate and one of this rare species was in Ketchum two weeks ago for a hurried stand.

With its ragtag assortment of trucks and RVs and trailers, "Culpepper & Merriweather Great Combined Circus" showed up at 10:30 on a Saturday morning.

But, by 2 p.m., the one-ring performing tent had been pitched and had a full house – more than half of them children-- ready to be bedazzled.

Culpepper & Merriweather embodies all the romance and mystique – as well as the hard luck– of the disappearing family-owned circus.

It’ll make stops in 218 towns this circus season (March through October), most of them small and remote from entertainment choices of a big city.

Robert (Red) Johnson, 48, the sole owner whom I first met last year when he came to Ketchum, is himself a character, who once pitched tents for another circus before forming Culpepper & Merriweather 13 years ago as a back-lot carnival act that grew into today’s traveling show.

Rail-thin Red Johnson has diabetes, smokes three packs of cigarettes a day, has high blood pressure, tries to maintain his health with vigorous workouts on a Stairmaster exercise machine he carries in his RV, and frets about the uncertainties of his business.

Although Johnson says he needs at least $4,200 in ticket sales per performance day to make ends meet, he also has a noble policy: even if only five paying customers show up, the show goes on.

Some of the burden of the incomprehensibly complicated logistics of booking sites and picking the right towns rests with Johnson’s 70-year-old mother, Theresa, who mans the circus office back in Queen Creek, Arizona, east of Phoenix, where the circus winters.

Sophisticates who’ve seen the grandeur of the giant Ringling Bros. shows with hundreds of performers and glittering costumes might find Culpepper & Merriweather hokey stuff, especially the pretentious-sounding, stentorian introductions of tuxedoed ringmaster Bobby Fairchild, as he brings on the Ayala family acrobats, the brief performance of Connie the elephant, the one-clown act.

In what other entertainment genre, however, would one find the ringmaster and his wife also performing the knife act, and Fairchild’s wife then becoming the snake lady, and between acts selling souvenirs as well as posing with her snakes for $5 Polaroid photos.

And the music – a band of two, who literally double in brass by playing several instruments.

Midway through the second performance of the day at 4 p.m., workers begin striking the petting animal tent, and loading equipment. By 6 p.m., the tents were folded and packed, and by dawn the next morning, they were gone, en route to another small town of families eager for hoopla of the Big Top in a small tent.

It departed Ketchum with one less animal: a pony suffering an inoperable tumor was put to sleep by a Ketchum vet.

Sure, soft drinks are overpriced, and so is the two-minute ride on Barbara the elephant. The talent is so-so.

But for 90 minutes, families numbed by the polished glitz of TV entertainment and big budget movies in stereo sound entered a world where mystique and make-believe, where everyone is briefly transformed into wide-eyed children.

Pat Murphy is a former publisher of the Arizona Republic newspaper and a former radio commentator.

 

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