City man who ran away as teen returns with circus

Thirty years ago, an Altoona man ran away to join the circus.

On Monday, he was back as the elephant trainer working with the massive animals in the Jaffa Shrine Circus in town all week.

Chip Arthurs was 15 when he left town for his big top dreams.

“I lied a little” to join underage, he said, but he only kept his cover for a short time until his family was informed of his whereabouts. Family life wasn’t great, he said, but the prospect of working with animals “was exciting for me.”

“For what it’s worth,” he said, “it’s a success story.”

Arthurs started off with tigers, eventually working with elephants. All of the 28 he owns are Asian elephants, despite performing to Toto’s “Africa” as the circus’ penultimate act. Most are in their early 40s or 50s.

Elephants can live 70 to 80 years, Arthurs said, so although he won’t be acquiring any more elephants for performances, for both legal reasons and due to increased costs, they have many more years of entertainment left in them.

“But I don’t know if I do,” Arthurs laughed.

He said working with animals is very similar to the process he went through bonding with his fellow performers, learning that a relationship is strengthened with time and work.

Monday’s show was the first time Arthurs performed in Altoona, despite joining the circus in 1983. He’d only returned for a few hours here and there to see family, he said, before this week.

As for his children, two sons ages 16 and 20, Arthurs said they, like many performers’ children, could make it their lives’ work if they wanted, but he’s having them focus on school now.

It can be their dream or not, he said, but “it was my dream.”

Many of the contortionists, animal trainers and stage crew who are part of the circus were trained by parents, uncles and even grandparents.

Vlastek Valla, originally from the Czech Republic, performed as “Roger” on the trampoline and with the Calypso dancers. He’s a seventh generation acrobat and said when you’re born into the circus, “you don’t really decide to do it.”

He and his wife, Kim, also a performer, have two children: Vincent, 11, and Violet, 3. Vincent is training as an acrobat and Violet as a dancer, both learning the rigors of years of hard work and the joys of delighting a crowd.

Most performers spend six to 10 months on the road, traveling across the country and living out of Winnebagos, but Valla said over time fellow cast and crew members become like family, with all sharing in the joy of performing.

“Entertaining people is the ultimate satisfaction,” Kim said. “Our family is entertaining [the audience’s] family.”

Chilean dog trainer Juan Quiroz has been performing for 17 years, currently as a member of a dog-training trio.

Most of the 10 dogs are toy poodles that dance on their hind legs and jump hurdles – or, in the case of the smallest performer, a Yorkshire terrier, avoid the hurdles and giant slide for comedic effect.

Quiroz also said being in the circus “is kind of a family thing.” He had family members on both sides who worked as performers, and although his mother sent him to school to get an education, he “always wanted to come to the circus.”

Finally, his uncle gave him the opportunity, and he’s been performing ever since.

Quiroz said he began training dogs because his grandmother was a trainer, too. But that wasn’t the only thing he’d ever done. With the circus, as with real life, you get to experiment with professions.

“When you’re born in the circus family, they teach you” different tasks, he said, and you have to find out what you like to do. “You can be a clown,” he added.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.