SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – The act of talking to George Carden is like watching a three-ring circus.
A lot of things are happening at the same time — only when he’s speaking there’s no ringmaster.
Let’s describe it this way, Carden, 66, is a man of monologue not dialog. Topics and details ascend to consciousness like bubbles in boiling water.
I interviewed him Wednesday because the George and Brett Carden International Circus is in town Friday, Saturday and Sunday at JQH Arena. Tickets range from $16 to $30.
He sits in his office on Highway O in Willard, which is the winter home of his circus. Behind him is a painting of two tigers.
He bought the circus from his father 41 years ago.
Of course, Carden has zealous opinions on the role of animals in the circus.
These views often come rapidly and if he were writing a paper for English composition his theme would be: “Why Exoctic Animals Should be in the Circus.”
The animal-rights groups, he tells me, are out to shut down his circus and others. First, they want to ban elephants and eventually they want to ban all exotic animals, such as lions, tigers, bears and zebras.
He sees an irony here that escapes me.
“They will allow exotic dancers but want to ban exotic animals,” he says.
I take a moment to process this. But I can’t.
Next, he tells me something I did not solicit.
“I was never in a topless bar or a nude bar.”
I think the antecedent to this sentence was “exotic dancers.”
At this point, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to share — so I did not.
Instead, I ask: “What’s new in this year’s show?”
King, the Almost-Human Gorilla
You see, I interviewed Carden just before last year’s shows at JQH.
That story covered his upbringing and at the end was one of my career highlights: I interviewed Chachi “the Rocket Man” Valencia, from Chile, who actually told me … “I married into a human-cannonball family.”
Carden considers the Human Cannonball the greatest act in circus history.
But I digress, sort of like the bubbles in that boiling water.
Back to: What’s new?
King, the Almost Human Gorilla, is new.
Carden shows me a video of a circus in Mexico City where a similar “Almost Human Gorilla” enters from a nearby hallway.
First, can a gorilla be “almost human”? Did the inventor mean to say “life-like”, instead?
For that matter, can it be either “almost human” or “life-like” at a height of 24 feet?
It is an automation that opens its hand and — just like King Kong — holds and lifts a dazzling circus ingénue.
Carden paid $50,000 for King, who will be part of the Springfield shows.
Speaking of Mexico, Carden says, exoctic animals are now banned from circuses there.
“And there are people living in cardboard boxes along the roads in Mexico,” he adds.
I try to track this but it all breaks down with an image of an exotic dancer twirling her pasties at a leopard in a cardboard box in Tijuana.
Also new this year, Carden says, are large fake bears with human-operators inside, he says.
And a yellow car that morphs into a huge transformer.
He paid $38,000 to have it made in Mexico.
Clearly, he says, the trend is to move from real animals. It’s already happening in Mexico.
In the United States, he says, Illinois and New Jersey have banned elephants in circus performances and New York will ban them starting in the fall.
He blames this injustice, in his view, on organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
But they are not banned in Missouri — and 46 other states — as of yet, Carden says, so there will be three live elephants in the Springfield shows.
At some point, Carden tells me he recently had “elephants” in his show in Chicago.
“I thought you said they were banned in Illinois?”
They weren’t real, he says. They were humans in costume.
“The spotlight people and the audience thought it was a real elephant,” he says.
There will always be a circus
Even when the day comes when elephants are banned across the nation, he says, the show will go on.
“There will always be a circus as long as there are children.”
I ask him how long before he retires.
“Who knows? Not any longer than I have to. I have a home in Florida and I am ready to move to Florida. I’m tired.”
He has diabetes and is being treated for skin cancer. He has four screws in his back from surgery. And he has high blood pressure.
The plan is for his son Brett, 36, to take over.
For those who want to see exotic animals this weekend, fear not, Carden says.
In addition to the new, inanimate features there will be elephants, tigers, camels, llamas, goats, horses, miniature ponies and a house cat.
Yes, says Brett, assuring me this is no ordinary house cat.
“He jumps from chair to chair.”
You can buy tickets at the JQH Arena box office, or call 417-836-7678, 888-476-7849 or by going to www.missouristatetix.com or spectacularcircus.com.
The shows are at 6:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Carden was one of the few residents of Missouri happy to see Tom Brady prevail over the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago.
Business first; Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday.
The interview concludes and on my drive out I pass a bright red cannon; it belongs to the Human Cannonball.
It is parked in the large lot. The rest of the circus is in Lebanon, playing a venue too small for Chachi Valencia to launch.
The snow is so stunningly bright that the red of the cannon is extraordinary and dream-like.
And then, there he is. He steps from the motor home hitched to the cannon.
He is bundled up, a coffee mug in hand; he wears glasses.
It seems odd to me that the Human Cannonball wears glasses.
It is Chachi himself, the Rocket Man.
It’s just his job.
He lives in a small motor home that on this snowy, cold day is parked in a lot in Willard, Missouri.
He drinks coffee, just like me, and wears glasses, just like me. Imagine that.
Godspeed in your timeless flight this weekend, Rocket Man.
These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper seven years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 N. Boonville, Springfield, MO 65806.