with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey, continued...
5, MANHATTAN, KAN.
A small herd of ag-college boys mills
around waiting to work. The big red and yellow tent has returned from
repairs in Italy in sections, so it must be laced together from scratch.
But there's no tent boss yet to organize the workers. It's going to be
tough to set up in time for the first show.
We lurch around with our gear, attached to each other
by cables, our footwork unpracticed. Bill does camera. I do sound. Everyone
thinks we're The News. Through my headphones I hear the relentless jackhammering
of the tent stakes, and "What Channel? What Channel are you from?"
We soon see we could make a film just about Setup.
Tarzan does a kind of ballet with his trucks, motioning them into precise
positions on the empty field -- his stage. The stakes go in, the towers
go up, the canvas rises, the tent poles are shoved into place. It's timeless
-- the circus comes to town. Everybody's in a great mood in spite of the
pressure of showtime. They love this beautiful tent. Joe Bauer adopts
the role of tour guide, bragging in his heavy Swiss-German accent, "A
tent to make is like a good suit, and the best cutting is in Italy."
He says he will call a meeting to introduce us and explain what we are
doing. This never happens. Therefore, everybody thinks we want a soundbite.
They don't understand that we're going to be with them for a solid month.
People rush into their trailers, emerging with fistfuls of photos they
thrust at the lens, as if the showbiz version of themselves in the photograph
is more real than the person standing in front of us.
Another Swiss-German, tiger trainer Othmar Vohringer,
is wrestling cages of Siberian white tigers out of their truck. Down the
truck ramp, his young groom, Mike, is startled when the winch cable lets
out suddenly and one of the heavy cages lurches toward him. Othmar insists
there's nothing wrong with the "vinch." There's loads of bumping
and snarling and cursing. But charismatic Othmar is thoroughly relaxed
in front of the camera. Later, sharpening his knives over a table crammed
with rooster saddles and bloody, charcoal-blackened beef, Othmar tells
us that before he could join the circus, his father said he had to learn
the family business -- butchering. While he cuts the tigers' meat, we
get a great long interview, just the way we like it -- somebody actually
doing something instead of posing stiffly for the camera. Bill has forgotten
his lens tissues in the van, and the sun is pointing into the lens, aggravating
the dirt spots, but we're too excited to stop. Bill keeps wiping the lens
with his shirt sleeve. We may have found one of our main characters already.
Our intention is to make a cinéma-vérité-style documentary
in which we'll capture the feeling of life on the road with this contemporary
traveling tent circus. We want an intimate look at the members of this
community, and hope that over time the personal stories of a handful of
major characters will emerge. We plan to be on the lot from morning until
night in every town on this Midwestern leg of the tour, right up until
they cross into Canada. After exploring the idea of renting a mini motor
home so we could stay on the lot, we have opted for motels to be certain
we'll have electricity when we need it for our equipment. Also, we think
we may occasionally need to put some distance between ourselves and our
We quickly fall in love with everyone -- the
hot dog guy, the drivers, the grooms, the tent crew, the performers, and
the ruling families, the Zerbinis and the Bauers. If they're willing to
let us follow them around, we're willing to shoot.
Othmar spends countless hours talking to us about animal
training, animal-rights issues, history and politics, and lets us tape
several instructive practice sessions. Bauer scion Joe Jr., the Ringmaster,
always knows where the camera is. Billy and Mark, the motorcycle daredevils,
open their trailer and their lives to us unconditionally.
We also get to know three families of Russian performers
who are on the tour this season. A father and son from Kazakstan, acrobats
Nurbol and Almas, perform both a hand-balancing act and a pole routine.
Luba Tchepiakova and her husband, Kim, carry on her family's circus-act
tradition, in which Siberian brown bears ride Russian draft horses. The
Karimas have three acts: Pavel and his partner, Vassili, do an awesome
hand-balancing routine "at the apex of the big top." Pavel's
wife Natalia, disguised as a limp rag doll, pops out of a samovar and
is spun and twisted into impossible positions in their traditional Russian
Doll act. Teenage daughter Olga, the family's translator, has a solo aerial
The only performer we have trouble getting near is Tarzan's
flame-haired daughter, Patricia Zerbini. Before we met her, Patty was
described to us as the son Tarzan never had. Not only is she a well-respected
big-cat and elephant trainer, but she can drive a semi, weld, do basic
truck repair and execute a neat split between the heads of two lumbering
beasts. She is raising her two boys alone after the death of her husband
in a Ringling train derailment just a couple of years earlier. She has
an edge you could cut meat with. When I point my microphone down into
a first-day conversation between her and Othmar, I'm on the receiving
end of a snarl scarier than the tigers'. In the first couple of towns
she ropes off the outer perimeters of the elephants' area, and then stays
inside so we can't get near her. We don't want to piss her off because
we know that one complaint to Daddy and we're history. So we respect her
boundaries and resign ourselves to the idea that she might not feature
much in the documentary.
What a shame. Her elephant act is awesome. No matter
how many times we shoot it, we still get chills when the elephants thunder
by, so close we can feel the wind off their backs, their thuds shaking
our tripod, Patty running around inside their circle Balanchine-style.
But if we don't have a character, the act won't mean as much.
30, ROCKFORD, ILL.
It's our last day on what we think is our only shoot.
We've seen Othmar's groom lose a bit of finger to a tiger. We've ridden
along with Tarzan in the steel truck, piled high with the underpinnings
for the seats and bleachers, hearing about the comedy lion-and-tiger act
he's famous for, and about the time he needed 500 stitches. We've watched
Olga slip from the rings. We've shot in the rain. We've crippled our camera
shooting through a horrendous dust storm in Hayes, Kan. Now it's snowing.
We have emerged from a foraging expedition to the local
Wal-Mart wearing twin blue-and-orange "Fighting Illini" caps,
the only cold-weather gear we could find among the spring merchandise.
The circus crew and performers who now feel intimate enough to poke fun,
nickname us "The Smurfs." We're wearing these hats, and Patricia
Zerbini has finally consented to be interviewed. She has seen us interviewing
other performers and now, we figure, she realizes they could steal the
The problem is, the camera doesn't work anymore. We've
been in and out of local cable stations, cajoling kind engineers to clean
its heads. But now it's beyond head cleaning. Too much wind. Too much
dirt. We think the audio might still be good.
So we decide to go for it, thinking maybe we can use
Patty's audio with other images we've got of her. First she insists on
the elephant tent, where it's too dark and the heat blower is making far
too much noise to get clean sound. That's okay, it turns out. Here she
gives us the top layer only, the rote stuff she'd say to any local-newspaper
guy. We suggest going inside her motor coach. It's warm and surprisingly
girl-like in there. Patty thaws. She gives us a few real glimpses of herself,
which, of course, with the broken camera, we are not really getting. We
could kill ourselves for having shot in that dust storm.