Behind every colorful big top is an even more colorful tent master.
Meet Circus Sarasota handyman Luis Garcia, the brute strength behind setting up, tearing down and maintaining Sarasota’s famous red-and-white tent.
A compact Irishman with a heavy brogue and quick wit, Garcia, 48, has spent the last 11 weeks living out of his 40-foot trailer in an open field in Los Angeles, where the tent is currently being leased by L.A.-based Cirque Berzerk, a gothic, cabaret-style circus.
“This is better than staying in a hotel or an apartment,” says Garcia of his mobile living quarters. “I have my barbecue and whatnot. I can ride my motorbike to the beach and my job is right outside my door. What isn’t there to love?”
Well, maybe the long days, hard labor and nonstop travel.
“Nah,” Garcia says on the other end of a long-distance, static-filled call. “It’s physically hard work, but you get a buzz out of it.”
What you might not know about Circus Sarasota is that CEO and founder Pedro Reis helps supplement the organization in the off-season by renting the circus’ 2,000-person tent. Garcia, Reis’ tent master for 11 years, comes with the stakes, poles and canvas.
After it’s assembled, someone has to keep an eye on it to make sure the cables are tight and the stakes are holding.
Garcia’s No. 1 responsibility is loading the 55-foot tent into five semi-truck trailers — two trailers for the main tent and concession tent and three trailers for the tent’s bleacher seating.
It takes two-and-a-half days to get the tent down and just as long to get it up. Garcia employs a dozen day laborers, in addition to one assistant tent master, Mundo Cortes, a retired trapeze artist whose family is currently performing in New York City’s Big Apple Circus, to help him execute what would otherwise be a Herculean task.
“Anybody can do this job,” Garcia says. “But there aren’t many of us around. It’s only experience. It’s like driving a car. Anybody can drive a car, but only good drivers don’t get in accidents.”
Garcia, who owns a house in North Sarasota, is used to bouncing between cities, towing his life behind a pickup truck, raising a tent one day, tearing it down the next.
Like many people in the circus, Garcia grew up under the big top. Born into the Fossett family, a circus dynasty that is to Ireland what Ringling is to the United States, as a child, Garcia remembers his family would pull into a different town every day. They would raise their tent at 5 a.m., perform two shows, fall asleep at midnight and then repeat the process the next day.
He jokes that it kept him “fit and out of trouble.”
Garcia joined Sarasota’s non-profit circus in 1998, one year after Reis and his aerialist wife, Dolly Jacobs, debuted their one-ring show in an empty lot near I-75 and Fruitville Road. Garcia had just finished a two-year run with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and he remembers driving straight through the night from St. Louis to Sarasota to begin work the next day.
“Business was pretty bad then,” Garcia says. “You were lucky to get paid.”
Not only was he building, painting and wiring electricity to the tent, he was performing, too. A daredevil by trade, Garcia resurrected his signature skating routine, an act that requires Garcia to roller skate on a 6-foot round platform while spinning a female skating partner from a rope tied around his neck. He juggled.
He walked on balls. He braved the high wire.
The following year, when the circus set up its tent in the parking lot at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Garcia can remember standing on the top of the tent’s 65-foot king pole just to get a better look at the bay.
“I was up there sort of looking out at the water, thinking ‘Isn’t Sarasota beautiful?’ when someone walked by and said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Garcia laughs. “I told them that the fly came off the tent and I was fixing it.”
DID YOU KNOW?
• Almost everyone at Circus Sarasota calls Luis Garcia by his nickname, Zito. “It’s funny,” says Pedro Reis, Circus Sarasota founder and CEO. “He’s an Irishman with a Spanish surname who doesn’t speak Spanish, but looks Spanish and goes by an Italian nickname.”
• When Circus Sarasota’s season kicks off in January, Garcia will be the first man on site, raising the show’s famous European-style tent.
• Garcia owns a tent-rental company, which leases tents out for weddings.
• About seven years ago, Cirque du Soleil offered Garcia a tent master job, but he turned it down to stay with Circus Sarasota. “I like it in Sarasota,” he says. “I’m more than just a tent master here.”
• Garcia likes to joke that he does a little bit of everything. For example, when Sarasota clown Chuck Sidlow needed help removing a fallen tree from his yard, it was Garcia he called to excavate it.
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