Cirque du Pedley
Pedley, a dusty little horse-farming hamlet just outside Riverside, boasts a population of just over 11,000. It’s not the kind of place I would have thought would be home to a business like The L.A. Circus. But its founders, Chester Cable, a famous foot juggler, and Wini McKay, a retired trapeze artist, seem to find Pedley the perfect place for their vast collection of circus-related props. They rent their stock for use in movies and television shows, as well as to photographers and for editorial and catalog purposes. Actually, saying that L.A. Circus has a vast collection of props is like saying the Pacific is damp — it doesn’t begin to describe what all is here behind the doors of various full-sized metal shipping containers, under tarp-covered shades or in a huge fenced-in yard at the edge of the Metrolink rail tracks. It was while on a bleary-eyed trip home from work that I first noticed the clown cars, circus wagons and cannon-large-enough-to-be-shot-out-of in that yard that piqued my interest. Each day I’d scan the yard from the train window and wonder who these things belonged to, and if any of the them were for sale … But it was while on a scavenger hunt Saturday for a VW bug’s rusted shell (future project, coming soon) in an adjoining yard, that we found ourselves meeting both Wini and Chester … and taking a delightful and unexpected tour of all things circus. Luckily, I had my camera with me, and I was able to take these shots. Unluckily, lots of the shots were awful, and some of the most interesting items (costumes, papier mache figures) were in places too dark for me to capture properly. But, I think you’ll still be able to share our sense of wonder. Step right up! …
Like any good prop house, L.A. Circus seems to be prepared for anything … there’s stuff here that could be used to dress a side-show in freakish style, and plenty of elephants of every size and shape — although some assembly may be required. Speaking of elephants, the upcoming film ‘Water for Elephants’, starring Reese Witherspoon, and featuring Robert Pattinson as a circus veterinarian during the Great Depression, made extensive use of L.A. Circus’ collection of period items. These items, like the clown in the opening photo, lie just inside the compound’s gate and were a suitable introduction to what was waiting ahead.
With Wini as our guide, we moved through the quonset hut-style office. It’s not just an office, though; it’s a floor-to-ceiling repository for smaller items including an amazing replica of a vintage calliope in wood. Wini treats us to a sprightly number and then we move out into the space out back, where more, so much more awaits …
Much of L.A. Circus’ stock is stored in full-sized metal storage containers, like the one above with the gorgeously alligatored patina. Unhesitatingly flinging open each container, Wini treated us to the the sight of everything from overflowing racks of riotously-colored costumes, to iconic prop circus performers and animals. Especially striking was a life-sized papier mache strong-man (with glass eyes rimmed with real lashes!) made by an artist famous for such figures.
All type of set dressing lurked around every corner, including a huge assortment of circus and sideshow banners. Wini protested that these examples were not the best ones they had available, and she was right. More terrific examples were behind these, many of them weathered and vintage-looking, including one for a sideshow performer with a parasitic twin jutting out from his abdomen. Loved that one!
Everywhere we looked was the raw material for creating a complete circus world, whether from a bygone era, or today. Entire canvas tents are folded and stacked, lighting effects and platforms and arenas wait in pieces, and carnival items, like this kicking bronco with a bullseye on his behind, all wait for their chance to entertain again.
More elephants, some in pieces, stand around keeping a colorful cannon company. One of several on the premises, each cannon seems poised and ready to launch a spandex-clad performer skyward.
This striking figure at one time stood gracefully at a Chinese festival … from her pose I’m thinking she was playing a flute of some sort. I’m sure she was much better dressed for that occasion than she is now, but I still find her quite beautiful, not to mention surreal, in this setting.
Across the street from the main compound, the fenced-in yard contains larger circus accoutrements, including a tiny VW van clown car (which I covet!), some large spheres for balancing acts (which I die for!), antique and replica circus barker stands (I want!), and tons of other vehicles for animals and performers ….
We were surprised to learn that lots of things here looked old, but were actually created only recently and made to look that way. It was really hard to tell the difference. Again, many of these pieces were used in past (‘The Butterly Circus’) and yet-to-be-released movies (‘Water for Elephants’), as well as on TV (‘Canivale’ on HBO). All of these were set in circus/carnival settings in the 1920s and 30s, L.A. Circus’ specialty.
Also in the yard was this: a peacock glowing like stained glass in the late afternoon sun. Wini pointed out to us that it had been made entirely of glass insulin vials that had been dyed with food coloring! Looking closer I could see she was right. Okay, I want this too.
Back at headquarters, both Wini and Chester regaled us with tales of prissy art directors, flamboyant photogs and flighty production designers … they also shared their archives of printed materials that featured their items on their pages. I was delighted to learn that a high-end boho fashion catalog had been here, and seeing the pictures containing items I’d seen on our tour was fun. There were also Vogue magazine spreads with Hollywood stars making like trapeze artists, outré photo books by Justin Monroe and Cristian Schiller that tapped into the erotic side of the circus, and many other publications. Our hostess and tour guide, Wini, was the definition of voluble, and she and Chester truly had a million stories they could have told. Sadly, dinnertime was upon them and we had to cut our impromptu visit short. To read more about L.A. Circus’ mission, and for more details, click this link for a story that appeared locally in the Press-Enterprise. I’m hoping to ask Wini for another visit, this time planned, so I can show you better pictures of their amazing stock. Saturday’s visit was a complete surprise: I had literally phoned Wini out of the blue, just to ask about the awesome stuff in the yard, but, once she found out we were parked outside she invited us in — I guess that’s circus folk for you!