May 06, 2024

Photo Essay: L.A. Circus, A Prop House Providing Everything Under the Big Top to Hollywood and Beyond

It takes a lot to surprise me. Especially after living in LA for 13 years and seriously exploring Southern California for about 16 years. 

 So I was thrilled to be introduced to a place I'd never heard of—LA Circus in Riverside, California—and have the chance to tour it with the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. 

There overlap between circuses and trains isn't minor—and, in fact, LARHF has included circus train miniature models in its historical displays at public places like Philippe's in Downtown Los Angeles. 

That project is a collaboration between LAHRF and LA Circus founder and director Wini McKay—who also happens to have been a Guinness Book of World Records-breaking, high-wire trapeze artist and is now a local circus expert. Her business partner, "foot juggler" Chester Cable, literally ran away from home as a kid to join the circus. He's in the Guinness Book, too—and spent years clowning around with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, LA Circus has the benefit of space—plenty of room in a huge lot to house all the large-scale circus stuff you could imagine (and not just wagons and a clown car). 

The carnival rides include a ferris wheel, a kiddie carousel...

...a swing ride...

...and a single teacup, enough to pop up a tent and erect the bleachers and put together the ring to make the whole thing look pretty real for movie, TV, and music video shoots (especially at night). 

Here's a music video (in the player above) that gives a good perspective of the filming location and how it looks on screen. (See more productions listed at the bottom of this post.)

Across the street is the LA Circus prop house, which also functions as a kind of research facility for circusiana and carnivalia—something Wini and Chester know plenty about, having not only performed themselves but also wrangled performers for shows like Circus of the Stars.
Some of their pieces are reproductions, while others are authentic artifacts from bygone circus events...

...used and reused over and over again for various Hollywood productions, transporting audiences across time and space. 
It's a good forever home for whimsical cast-offs, whether it's a side board from a merry-go-round...

...or a marionette diorama by Pelham Puppets (which somehow made its way to California from Harrods department store in London). 
Reportedly, this particular mechanized puppet stage came from Bob Baker himself...

...and while others have more recently tried to buy it off Wini, she says, it's not currently for sale. 

There are plenty of circus animals at LA Circus, though they're made of materials like wood, papier-mâché, and fiberglass instead of flesh...

...and their circus tricks are frozen in time. 

A demonic, spring-loaded jester made its way to Riverside from Buena Park, where it once played a role at Knott's Scary Farm (the haunted house version of Knott's Berry Farm). 

A trio of harlequin heads beckon visitors to "step right up!" from their carnival barker's perch.
One clown head seems to have lost its body and now hangs from the ceiling like a piñata waiting to be struck...

...while other clown faces in two dimensions lurk in the darker corners...

...ready to taunt curious passers-by. 
Walking through the prop house feels like a journey through a funhouse, with all sorts of terrors waiting around every corner. 

Though some of the freak show attractions remained otherwise unseen, except for the board banners advertising the Giant Gorilla (perhaps charmingly misspelled), Four-Legged Woman, Fish Man, and more.  

Everything at LA Circus seemed vaguely familiar to me, as though I'd seen it at a circus myself or in a Hollywood depiction of one. I even started to recognize people in the figures and faces—like one disembodied head that reminded me of Peter Lorre. 

Circuses are always kind of a fever dream, right? They're not supposed to be scary, but they are. And the most menacing faces are those that are smiling just a bit too much.
Not to mention the laughing "fat lady"/"bearded lady" (akin to Laughing/Laffing Sal at the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco) and the conjoined twins who slowly gesture with their one pair of hands. 

Despite its location in the Inland Empire—about 50 miles east of Los Angeles—LA Circus has been Hollywood's go-to circus supplier for decades. 
Its props, set pieces, and other whimsical (and sometimes creepy) paraphernalia can be found in such films as The Greatest Showman and Water for Elephants; such TV shows as BonesAmerican Horror Story: FreakshowAmerica's Got Talent, and HBO's Carnivale; and music videos for such hit songs as Britney Spears' "Circus" and Taylor Swift's "Willow."

And if the production doesn't shoot on their Riverside property—or even in Southern California—the folks at LA Circus have wagon, will travel. 
What a special place to visit. 

For more videos of my visit, click here

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