Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey, continued...



   We've just driven up from Montgomery, Ala., where half the circus is playing a state fair; the others are here in Chattanooga. The circus has crisscrossed Canada from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia, gone all the way back west to Willmar, Minn., and then come south. Soon they will head home for one final date in Carthage, Mo. The Chattanooga venue is a vast, gymnasium-like space, with horrible fluorescent lighting. Our inside footage looks awful. But the story waits outside.

Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey. By Robin Rosenthal
Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey. By Robin Rosenthal
Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey. By Robin Rosenthal

Robin Rosenthal C'76 and Bill Yahraus C'65 ASC'67


   Motorcyclist Billy Rogers, whom we have come to think of as our very own Patrick Swayze, backlit by the intense southern sun, spins out his tale of woe. His partner has run off with that girl from Canada, leaving him in the lurch. No motorhome, no Globe of Death, no motorcycles, no act, no paycheck. Even worse, Billy had leased this equipment from a cousin of Tarzan's, and had agreed to be responsible for it. As a substitute, he has summoned his sister from Wichita Falls, and together they have resurrected a shaky aerial act. Meanwhile, Othmar has fired his tiger groom, the father-to-be. Pregnant Sue is also gone. The Karimas are tense over Olga's future with Billy. We follow our characters around, struggling with the feeling that we are shameless bloodhounds. We plan to sort out later what feels fair and honest and what feels cheap. But now we have to gather everything we can to make the personal come alive.
   Tarzan heads back to Montgomery -- where the tent is -- to help Joe Bauer with the Teardown. We follow. The fairground is almost empty but for spotty piles of trash. "Look at this." Joe Bauer gestures around at the desolate scene. "So sad." He finds three little pots of wilted pansies. "For my wife. What do you think?"
   They clown for us. Joe tries out some handstands on the moving forklift, his performing days long past. Still the comedian, Tarzan hops out of the driver's seat of a moving truck and motions for it to follow him.
   Joe goes into one of his retirement riffs. "I think I'm gonna retire," he sighs. "There are so many beautiful things to see. The sad thing is we don't take the time. Zurich. How many times I played there. Basel. Stuttgart. Munich. I was all over the world, and what did I see? Nothing but a circus and a building or a tent."
   The melancholy of their lives comes home to us. This world, so free of earthly constraints in the ring, so full of daring, of adventure and romance, is nonetheless in its own way both circumscribed and routine. Rarely did we see anyone go off to explore any place further than the mall or perhaps a nearby casino boat. They really can't. There's no time. There are animals to look after. Riggings to repair. New tricks to practice. And always the next town to get to. The edges of the lot are the boundaries of their world. The only thing that takes them outside is the road itself. And it's always beckoning, but only as far as the next town.
    Joe Bauer Jr. told us about the time the family actually had decided to sit out a season. They would stay home in Sarasota, going to school, swimming in the pool, doing what other people did. After a couple of months they were going nuts. Joe Sr. booked out the family's act, The Fearless Bauers, and soon they were on the road again. We don't believe Joe will be retiring any time soon.
   That night, we take Joe and Tarzan out to the local steakhouse for a thank-you dinner. In the morning we will follow Tarzan's caravan on the 1200-mile trip from Montgomery to southwestern Missouri.


   Carthage is next door to Webb City, the circus's winter quarters. For the first time, the circus will run as part of the town's Maple Leaf Festival. But except for the fun of participating in the parade, the general energy level here is noticeably down. Everyone seems tired and ready to go home, wherever home is. We begin to feel it too, as if we have become a part of our subject. The maple leaves are blood red against the brooding skies. Maybe we have stayed too long at the fair. We wander around wondering what else to shoot.
   Once in a while we are privy to little explosions of emotion. The Zerbini cousins who own the missing Globe of Death have arrived on the scene, and are arguing loudly with Billy over how to handle the situation. We see that Billy is really worn down raw and is seriously considering leaving the business he was born into. Embarrassed, we hang back a little as he and his sister have a heart-to-heart. When her parents are away, Olga invites us into her trailer and proceeds to unload the season's baggage. Her story is one of an overwrought 19-year-old girl, swamped by first love, class politics, homesickness and the cruel world. We know as we are shooting that she is far too vulnerable and that we will protect her in the editing process.
   While painting gold tips on her fingernails, our new best friend, Patty, tosses us a wonderful ending for her story line. There's a sweet interchange between Othmar and his new tiger groom, a farm girl from North Dakota. After the last show, we shoot one long continuous scene of Tarzan and his crew rolling up the final section of tent canvas for the season. Tarzan is barking and cursing just like the first day. Miraculously, the whole shot makes it in one piece onto the short end of a tape. That will become the end of our movie. The season is over.


With Oregon Public Broadcasting as their presenting station, Robin Rosenthal C'76 and Bill Yahraus C'65 ASC'67 received finishing funds for their documentary from PBS. A Circus Season: Travels With Tarzan will air on PBS stations nationwide on July 21. They can be contacted by e-mail at Robinmrose@aol.com and Byahraus@aol.com

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