Arts & Entertainment

Circus Vargas keeps big-top tradition alive as Ringling Bros. shuts down

Katya Quiroga, owner and operator of Circus Vargas, a Southern California-based circus, swings through the air during a performance. Early in her career, the seventh-generation circus performer worked as a trapeze artist before becoming co-owner of Circus Vargas.
Katya Quiroga, owner and operator of Circus Vargas, a Southern California-based circus, swings through the air during a performance. Early in her career, the seventh-generation circus performer worked as a trapeze artist before becoming co-owner of Circus Vargas.
Courtesy of Circus Vargas

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When she heard the Greatest Show on Earth was closing, Katya Quiroga was shocked. She and her performers at Circus Vargas, a 46-year-old touring circus based in Southern California, were just a week away from opening their 2017 season.

Quiroga told KPCC on Tuesday that her Facebook feed was flooded with headlines like “Ringling Bros. circus closing after 146 years.” Her performer friends wondered what it meant for their jobs. She couldn’t believe another part of the circus, the industry she was raised in, was gone.

“We did not have an inkling [about the Ringling Brothers closure],” Quiroga said, adding that she felt sorry for Ringling Bros. circus' soon-to-be out-of-work performers. ”People’s feelings and ideas and perceptions of the circus change, and we have to change with that or give them something different or new that they’re not expecting.”

She and her husband Nelson both come from generations of circus performers and have owned and operated Circus Vargas for more than a decade. Quiroga said she sees the closure of Ringling Bros. as a reminder that circus companies must adapt to today’s audiences if they want to survive.

Katya Quiroga, left, and her husband, Nelson Quiroga, stand in front of a sign advertising the 46-year-old circus company they own and operate together. Circus Vargas opens its 2017 season this week in Del Mar and will arrive in Los Angeles in mid-May.
Katya Quiroga, left, and her husband, Nelson Quiroga, stand in front of a sign advertising the 46-year-old circus company they own and operate together. Circus Vargas opens its 2017 season this week in Del Mar and will arrive in Los Angeles in mid-May.
Courtesy of Katya Quiroga

The circus' 2017 show, "Steam Cirque," opens this week in Del Mar. According to the circus' website, the show will travel to more than a dozen cities in Southern California between January and this summer. The show lands in Los Angeles in mid-May, Quiroga said.

“Steam Cirque” brings audiences multiple modernized acts and show elements, according to the show's website, with a steampunk theme. The show won't feature animal acts as circuses traditionally have, something that contributed to the downfall of Ringling Bros. Circus Vargas also updated “Steam Cirque's” music selections to reflect today’s most popular songs, Quiroga said.

“We have just made some changes in advance that have helped our show and family drive through the industry’s difficult times,” she said. "We hope to fill any gap created by the closure of Ringling."

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus tours will conclude in May, according to the circus' website. On Tuesday's "AirTalk," L.A. Times reporter Les Neuhaus told KPCC that Ringling Bros. ticket sales had taken a nose dive in recent years, even after the company's attempts to change it's act and adapt for modern audiences.

Listen here to AirTalk's segment, featuring circus memories from KPCC listeners.

Another important appeal of Circus Vargas’ shows: the intimate level of interaction, Quiroga said. Meeting with audience members before and after the show to take photos is an essential part of the business, she said. 

Quiroga no longer performs, but her 19-year-old daughter performs as a trapeze artist. Seeing the eighth generation of her family perform gives her hope for the future of Circus Vargas and other circus companies across the country, she said. 

"It helps us show that the art of circus is alive and well," Quiroga said.