A close encounter with the biggest Asian elephant on the continent, five motorcycles whipping around a metal ball at high speeds in perfect synchronization, and a human cannonball from America’s Got Talent will be just a few of the performances from this weekend’s circus at Freedom Hall.
With five more remaining shows, at 10:30 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. today, and 1 and 6 p.m. tomorrow, there’s still time to see the production fit to fill a large city arena here in Johnson City.
The Shriners are expected to host around 24,000 guests over the course of the six-show weekend, which began Friday night.
Twenty-one-year-old Saturn Garcia, a sixth-generation circus performer, has the ability to do a little bit of everything. He has the experience and know-how to be shot from the cannon or drive in the extreme motorcycle mania cage, but this year he’s concentrating his talents on the Space Wheel.
The Space Wheel apparatus, he describes, is a big hamster wheel, soaring nearly 40 feet in the air, with Garcia doing tricks, sometimes blindfolded tricks in it, high above the audience. He said it’s a crowd-pleaser.
“It makes it look like you’re in space,” Garcia said. “It makes the crowd’s imaginations go wild.”
The circus business runs through his blood. He said he first started performing in the motorcycle pit at the age of seven, was shot from the cannon at the age of 12, and since met his wife through the family circus business.
David Smith is another performer at the circus, carrying on the family traditions. At 36, he has racked up piles of accolades and accomplishments for his human cannonball abilities. He said he has set four Guinness world records, including those for length and height, he’s recently appeared on America’s Got Talent, has been shot over parts of the Grand Canyon, has filmed for MTV, and travels the world doing what he loves.
“Last week I was in Dubai,” Smith said of his journey. “And next week I’ll be in Rio. It’s been a super-interesting life.”
Working in such a dangerous situation, he said he likes to check and double-check all of his equipment. Like Garcia, he said he got into this line of working because of his father, who was an engineer working in the circus, who finally let him attempt the stunt after he came home from school one day with a saxophone in hand. The rest is history.
The setup is almost as impressive as the show itself, said head of production for the George Carden Circus International, Israel Alvarado. He’s the man in charge of logistially putting the big show in a Freedom Hall, working within the limitations of the venue, especially compared to the massive venues they’re used to performing in.
Asked if any displays would be cut due to the venue, Alvarado said no corners were being cut and they are putting on the same show they put on in the Target Center, an NBA arena in Minneapolis.
Alvarado said the show will contain all the traditional things people would expect to see at a circus, with impressive animals, showpersons, and the like, but also things people have never seen before.
One thing the circus has that East Tennesseans may not have seen before is an opportunity to spend up close and personal time with Asian elephants.
An 8,000-pound male by the name of Bo will be displaying many of his tricks for the audience. At a height of almost 12 feet, Bo is noted as being the largest Asian elephant in North America. He’ll be joined by five other female Asian elephants, all performing a series of feats.
George Hannaford, a handler of the elephants, said this is always one of the most popular aspects of the circus, and that circus-goers might never get a chance to experience the elephants’ personalities like this again. “They’re very intelligent animals, like giant 3-year-olds, who are curious and want to get into everything,” Hannaford said.
Aside from the elephants, Hannaford said the tigers and dogs will be exciting shows to see. Just like the stature of Bo the elephant, Hannaford said the other animals are large, which is a trend with the circus in general.
“Everything in this circus is really big,” he said.
Circus director Charlie Fellers said the only thing not big about the circus is the price.
“This is an economic price for the community,” Fellers said. He said attendees would be paying almost triple in ticket prices if they were to see the same circus at a bigger venue.
The doors to the circus open one hour prior to each show, where elephant rides will be offered.
Tickets can be purchased at Freedom Hall for $12 for children under the age of 12, and the adult ticket price is $14.