Written by Andrew Ottoson Wednesday, 20 June 2007 01:56
| Mike Harber waves from inside his personal sound stage—the rear of a bandwagon he drives for the Kelly Miller Circus of Hugo, Okla. The Hillsboro resident began a tour of the eastern United States in March and will continue it through October.
When most people think of the circus, they picture elephants and ringmasters and clowns and a maybe a few trapeze artists swinging through the air.
But if you stop to imagine the sounds of a circus, it’s only a matter of time until the steady, deep roll of drums starts to echo in your mind.
Enter Hillsboro resident Michael Harber, who, at age 54, temporarily left town to become music director for the Kelly Miller Circus.
“Sometimes my wife, Julie, says I’m going through a second childhood,” Harber said.
“On the other hand,” he joked, “we have a lady here who likes to say that when her daughter was 16, she ran away to join a town.”
The Kelly Miller Circus is presently making its way through Maryland, headed toward one of its biggest stops of the year an island in Lake Erie.
“It’s owned by John Ringling North II, and you should recognize that middle name,” Harber said of the circus
Indeed. The owner’s great uncles were the known other than the Ringling brothers who gave the world “the greatest show on earth.”
Harber’s show travels from town to town in 25 vehicles, one of which he is paid to drive.
“I live in a one-ton vehicle that converts into an RV that I share with the guy who teaches the school-age kids in the circus,” he said. “And I drive the bandwagon, a truck that hauls all the music equipment.”
The rear of the bandwagon doubles as a stage, and when the circus arrives in a new town, Harber sets up his drum set. Half an hour before the show begins, Harber starts the music.
“When the shows are going on, I get in the zone,” he said. “It’s a place where I have some freedom, but it’s also very challenging.”
“Timing is essential,” he added. “When something happens, the timpani roll and the ‘boing’ when a clown gets hit on the head—that sound has to match up right.”
“Actually, we used to do a honk for that, but now it’s a glass crash,” he said.
“Or when the juggler juggles, we’ve got to stay on the same page,” Harber continued. “When he’s going to throw something way up in the air, or when he’s going to throw a certain kind of object, he gives me a little cockeyed grin—just a little thing nobody knows about—so we stay in sync.”
Harber’s responsibilities extend well beyond the bells and whistles of circus sounds down to the basics of running the public-address and monitor systems.
“I’m multitasking up there, not just playing the drums,” he said. “And you know, it’s a lot of fun.”
So how does a person decide to join the circus?
Harber said he has a Web site that connects him to job opportunities.
“The circus contacted me, so I sent them a little form letter through the Web service, not really intending for anything to come of it,” Harber said.
“Then they called and offered me a lot of money—it actually pays really well—and after that they offered me more money if I’d drive a truck for them.
“I thought, hey, if I’m going to go anyway, I might as well drive,” he said.
One visit to Hugo, Okla., later, Harber was taking the job offer seriously.
“I came back and talked to my wife about it some more, and decided to accept the position,” he said.
Harber went back to Hugo in March, and he’s been on the road ever since.
“We started out in Oklahoma then went to Texas, to Louisiana, to Texas, to Arkansas, to Missouri, to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland,” he said.
“We toured Washington, D.C., and now we’re on our way to New Jersey and New York,” he added. “Then we’re turning around and heading back to Hugo for winter quarters.”
Harber said Hugo is home to three circuses during the winter months, and, on account of them, the town is nicknamed Circus City.
Being around the circus comes with a few odd experiences with new and different people.
“I met these Chinese acrobats here who don’t speak any English,” Harber said. “Every now and then, they see a new kind of animal and want to try to catch it.
“One time, just a few minutes before the performance, already wearing their performance clothes, five of these guys surrounded this little animal and threw a jacket on it. Turned out not to be a great idea. Every one of them got sprayed by that skunk.”
But circus life is not all fun and games.
“When we travel, we travel together,” Harber said. “At 6 a.m. we have what’s called ‘call’—when we all head out for the next town.
“When we get there, we meet the ‘24-hour guy’ who has been in the new town for a day. He gets all the vehicles parked in the right places,” Harber said.
“Then the semis come in and drive around where the tent’s going to be set up. As soon as they’re ready, I back the bandwagon into place and set up the stage.
“We eat after that, and from 1 p.m. to 3 we have siesta time before the shows, which start at 4:30 and 7:30 during the week.
“After the show, if we’re going to move the next day, people are running all over, tearing the tent down and packing it away.”
Harber said it takes three or four hours to set up the circus, and about one hour to take down and load it up.
“I have about 20 minutes to get the stage taken care of before it all comes down around me,” he said. “It’s well organized, very well tuned—a well-oiled machine. Everybody has to do their part or it doesn’t work.”
In addition to the pace, part of the challenge is working closely with different kinds of people.
“If someone wants to come to this kind of work, they have to understand this is like a big family,” he said. “There’s always the good brother and the bad brother, and the nice one and the ornery one, and the cantankerous one and the fun one. And there’s no going home for eight months.
“By far the toughest part is being away from my wife and my dogs,” Harber said. “I talk to my wife every day and I miss her like crazy—but I don’t get to talk to my dogs. So she walks one in the morning and one in the evening.”
The sheer quantity of travel adds up to a little less stability than most people are comfortable with.
“To live this life, you have to be willing to live like a musician,” Harber said. “You’re gone (traveling) most of the year. but at the same time, it’s fun, it’s rewarding.
“You’re watching people have a good time and you’re around people who have laid things aside just to enjoy life for a while.”
“So it has its ups and downs, but it’s really a thrilling and challenging position.”