Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey. By Robin Rosenthal
Two filmakers went on the road with a family-owned circus and found enough human drama outside the ring to rival the snarling tigers, horse-riding bears and aerial acrobatics within.



   Tarzan's not at the truck lot.
   "Try the animal barn," the secretaries say. "He just called from over there."
   Down the road we go in our rented van, back the way we came from our motel. A couple of horses graze in a pasture. Two kids outside a trailer stretch like kittens.
   "Should we shoot?" we ask each other. "Better not till Tarzan knows we're here."
   In the barn, seven elephants bob and sway, anxious for their feed. The groom commands the elephants to hold their trunks high up in the air, waiting until each one has its tub of grain before eating. Afraid we'll miss something we'll kick ourselves for later, we shoot in the dim light. But Tarzan's not there either. "Try the truck yard," we're told.
   Back we go. Webb City is starting to look awfully familiar. The back corner of the lot is occupied by a dozen semis in various stages of loading and unloading. Guys stand around drinking coffee, giddily insulting each other. Glittering circus-ring curb is hauled out of one truck and into another. Racks of heavy stage lights are wheeled in.
   A burly man in a denim farmer's jacket barks out orders as the daylight begins to fade. This is Tarzan. We propel ourselves into his world, shift our gear to one side and stick out our hands. "Hi, we're Robin and Bill, the documentary filmmakers." He directs a shrill whistle to someone else. "Careful with those lights," he hollers. Hardly a nod in our direction. "Guess we'll just start," we say. "Okay?" Is that a grunt we hear? We look at each other, shrug and begin shooting in earnest.
   The next day, April 4, we wait hours for a long shot of the whole caravan leaving its winter quarters. Tires are repaired. The fuel man comes. The families' motor coaches gather. Tie-down straps and chains are checked and re-checked. Finally a toot signals that the procession has begun. In majestic slow motion, their giant grills gleaming, the trucks come at us, one after another. It's a gorgeous shot, exactly what we hoped for. The steel truck. The tent truck. The prop truck. We are just learning what all this means. The people we have just begun to know honk and wave from their cabs.
   We're off and running, about to hit the road with the Tarzan Zerbini International Circus.


   Bill Yahraus C'65 ASC'67 and I met in Hollywood working on a movie called Lush Life, produced by another Penn alumnus, Jonathan Sanger C'65 ASC'67. Bill had been primarily a feature-film editor (Heartland, Country, Far North, The Long Walk Home, Silent Tongue). Years before he'd made documentaries, coming out of the documentary unit at KQED-TV in San Francisco in the late sixties. In Los Angeles he'd founded a co-op called Focal Point Films, where he made the award-winning film Homeboys, about an L.A. gang. I was toiling away as an assistant editor in movies and TV. My major at Penn had been fine arts, and I had an MFA from Queens College. I had taught college-level studio art in San Antonio for several years, exhibited some work as a video artist and done some fiction writing. Neither of us felt creatively fulfilled in our Hollywood world. Nothing so unusual, really.
   We did a few jobs together, and I became an editor. Somewhere along the way we became a couple. We decided to make a documentary together. Bill had always been interested in circus, in the real lives behind the dazzling artistry and showmanship of the big top. I was drawn to the cheap thrills of the carnival midway, to the itinerant life of its performers and the garish visuals of the rides, games and grab stands. We started out by ignorantly lumping these two folkloric subjects together -- circus and carnival. Our first stop was Gibsonton, Fla., the winter- and retirement-home of many carnival performers. "Gibtown" was a fascinating place. In the morning we'd tape in the trailer home of octogenarian Melvin the Human Blockhead as he pounded ten-penny spikes up his nose, or ran through his old contortionist's routine. In the afternoon we'd sprawl on the carpet at Giant's Camp with "half-woman" Jeannie Tomeini, flipping through fabulous photographs from the old freakshow days.
   We talked our way onto the grounds of the Florida State Fair as the midway was being constructed, and there we had our first encounter with the Tarzan Zerbini Circus. Tarzan himself reminded us of the teamsters we knew from the movie business: huge, gruff, a little scary. Climbing into his Rolls, headed back to Missouri, he told us we couldn't talk to anyone but his daughter. We obeyed -- for a while. Then Joe Bauer took over. We assumed that Joe, the agent for the circus, co-owned the show. Joe opened the door wider. One peek at this ninth-generation, family-owned circus, and we were hooked. With a Hi-8 camera, the tape stock was cheap. We continued to explore and shoot. Back home, we tried to combine our interest in both circus and carnival, shopping around a proposal called Barnum & Bailey's Daughters. A year passed, and no funders bit.
   Perhaps concentrating on just one of the two subjects might attract funding, we thought, so we asked Joe Bauer about going on the road with the Tarzan Zerbini Circus. It was March. He said they were leaving in April, and yes, we could come along. Based on his permission, we looked for funding, again unsuccessfully. We decided we'd better just go, and hope the money would follow.
   But something told us to make sure we also had Tarzan's approval. You don't just follow people around for a month without an understanding. Joe Bauer said he would speak to Tarzan on our behalf. The deadline to pay for our plane tickets approached. The rental camera was on hold. We still had heard nothing. Finally, we called Tarzan directly. "We just want to be sure Joe told you we're coming along," we said. "It's my circus," Tarzan said. "Who the hell are you?" Shaken, we laid out our idea. "I've got a truck running outside," said Tarzan. "Talk to Joe." We packed our bags.



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