Jon Weiss’ love affair with the circus spans three decades.
Over the years, he’s worked as a clown, a human cannonball and a master of ceremonies.
He even wed his wife under the big top at Madison Square Garden, arriving at the altar in a clown car. A bear served as the ring bearer. Elephants acted as bridesmaids.
“How many people can say that they create memories for people every day, that they create laughter?” asked Weiss, who has served as the host of Circus Vargas since late 2007. “I’m able to go in the circus ring every day and I’m able to do something that I really like.”
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This Fourth of July weekend, Circus Vargas pitches its big blue-and-gold tent at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. The show, held in a theater- style tent that seats 1,500 comfortably, features clowns, acrobats, aerialists and more.
“At the very end of the show, (after) you’ve seen all the performers doing these amazing things you get to meet them,” Weiss said. “Because of that, the memory is enhanced 100 times.”
A seasoned performer capable of balancing anything from a bicycle to a ladder on his chin, Weiss discovered he had a natural knack for clowning as a kid growing up on Long Island. He got his first break while working a discotheque.
“The owner realized I had a knack for entertaining and gave me a paper bag full of clown stuff,” recalled Weiss, who started performing at weekend parties.
After graduating high school, he attended Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Clown College.
“It’s a boot camp for clowning. You learn everything from unicycling to stilt-walking to how to design your costume,” Weiss said.
He won a one-year contract to tour with Ringling Bros. His future wife, Laura, joined as a dancer.
They’ve been part of the circus scene ever since.
“We fell in love with the lifestyle,” Weiss said. “It’s a unique lifestyle. It’s an alternative lifestyle. It’s not for everybody, but it’s for us.”
According to Weiss, the challenge is keeping things fresh.
Under the Big Top
“Laura and I really have to reinvent ourselves each year when we’re working,” Weiss said.
In 1990, for instance, Weiss made the transition from clown to human cannonball, experiencing more than 5,000 flights over 15 years.
“The first couple times, my whole body was killing me,” he said. “I had whiplash. I was really a mess.”
Weiss compared the experience to being rear-ended by a car going 60 or 70 mph. “But you’re ready for it,” he explained.
Weiss spent 26 years with Ringling Bros. before joining Circus Vargas, founded in 1969 by Clifford E. Vargas. (Nelson and Katya Quiroga-Tabares, members of the Flying Tabares family of Argentine acrobats, have owned the circus since 2005.)
Weiss said he values the smaller circus’s more intimate feel.
Whereas Ringling Bros. travels across the country, performing for as many as 20,000 audience members each night, Circus Vargas entertains relatively small crowds throughout California.
Weiss’s favorite part of the job comes about 20 minutes before the show, when younger audience members are invited to step into the ring to learn about juggling, feather balancing and other circus skills.
“They get to look out into the audience and see what we’re seeing,” said the host, adding that Circus Vargas has a “very interactive” vibe.
Weiss noted that the Circus Vargas does not use animal acts. Instead, the circus relies on human performers such as clown Matti Esqueda and hula hoop artist Getti Garcia.
“You have to have a talent to get into this. You have to have a commitment and loyalty for it,” he said.
Weiss’ dedication to the circus arts is well documented.
Together with fellow clown Al Rios, he competed on the popular reality show “The Amazing Race” in 2003. The friends made it to the top four before being eliminated.
Earlier this year, Weiss appeared as a clown in the movie “Water for Elephants,” about a traveling circus during the Great Depression. Circus Vargas itself also figures prominently in the film.
“Clowning is always going to be part of me,” Weiss said. “I just have a knack for it. I believe that when you like what you do, it shows through your work.”