Ted McRae says, "See you at the circus." Photos | Joe Eskenazi
Former lion tamer forced to sit by the dock of the bay, waste time.
By Joe Eskenazi
Ted McRae has no fixed address, and drives his “Land Yacht” motor home around the nation 44 weeks a year. His tortoiseshell cat, Jad, is planted on the floor of his cozy, wood-paneled home on wheels, as sedentary as McRae is mobile. But today neither man nor cat is going anywhere.
McRae, the ringmaster at Circus Vargas, had put the Land Yacht into gear and headed out with the convoy of fellow performers who had been living in an RV village on a dusty lot across from AT&T Park for the week. But the yacht had other plans. “My motor home started smoking,” recalled McRae as he pulled a Marlboro out of the box and proceeded to do the same. “A policeman told me if where I was coming from was closer than where I was headed to take it back.”
So while the rest of the circus is setting up shop in Hayward, McRae spent all of Monday biding his time in the desolate Mission Bay parking lot, awaiting a tow to a San Leandro mechanic. “It’s always something. Sometimes it’s major and sometimes it’s minor. Hopefully, this one will be in-between.”
McRae, who is 50, takes a drag on his cigarette and reflects on this unusual life he leads. His wife, Renee, lives in the RV with him, and his two younger boys, Jordan and Dorian, live in a trailer he pulls on road trips. They’re 18 and 16, respectively; both take courses via the Florida Virtual School and ride unicycles and juggle for the big show. McRae’s oldest son, Adrian, is a 22-year-old lighting technician for Ringling Brothers – “I think he’s in Hidalgo, Texas right now,” says Dad.
Unlike many of his Circus Vargas colleagues, McRae wasn’t exactly born into a circus family. In 1994 he had a job driving a forklift at a paint warehouse when he got a late-night phone call from his cousin. The cousin, it seems, had founded a circus. He had a lion and tiger man, but the cats didn’t exactly take to the chap. Would McRae like to jump in the cage? “I said ‘Heck yeah!’” recalls McRae with a laugh. “Actually, I said I’d have to talk to my wife, but she said she’d always liked circuses so let’s go. Later that month I was in the cage with four lions on one side of me and three tigers on the other.”
When asked what experience he had in the field of lion-taming, McRae noted that he’d always liked animals. As for his qualifications, he’s still alive, isn’t he?
Circus Vargas does not feature any animals that could, say, induce mayhem if they escaped from the local zoo. McRae has a large snake that he does an act with, and others do a dog act –- the crowd under the big top is led to believe a mad-wild bull will be running out of a chute and a few Boston Terriers with horns fastened to their heads come sprinting out. That’s always good for a laugh.
As the sun dips below Bernal Heights and the parking lot turns cold, the life of a traveling circus performer is looking about as romantic as a Lombard Street motel. McRae, however, is, quite literally, a happy camper.
“Circus life is cool. We have our own little community and we travel around from place to place,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette. “If you’ve gotta do something, this ain’t bad.”