"Not too many years ago, we were knocking ourselves out trying to maintain a home overlooking the harbor in Long Beach, California," Lou Stoetzer states. "We thought it was a nifty way to live, never estimating the cost of time, health, and money our lifestyle required."
In May 1998, Lou and his wife, Judy Farrow, parked their fifth-wheel trailer home about thirty feet from the water on the cruise ship docks in Boston. Their health was never better. They had time to ride their bicycles into downtown Boston. And the cost was...nothing!
How did they do it? Fulfilling a dream most youngsters court at one time or another, Lou and Judy ran away and joined the circus. Except these two kids, inside more mature skins, are full-time RVers.
A bout with prostate cancer almost five years ago triggered a transition to a full-time RV life for the professional couple. At the time, they owned and managed The Adult Children Centers, clinics they founded in the early 1980's to specialize in psychological services to adults who were raised in alcoholic families.
As director of education for the clinics, Judy supervised the administration staff and developed educational seminars for patients and therapists, particularly in women's issues. Lou served as clinical director for a large staff of therapists and provided graduate training for interns. "I almost lost my health in the bargain," Lou explains. "After the cancer, I decided to take my own advice on slowing down and enjoying life."
After traveling cross-country and tiring of unending tourist experiences, the adventuresome twosome followed a whim and joined the Big Apple Circus. They had read an article about the traveling troupe when they passed through New York City. By chance, they later spotted their RVs parked across from the Lincoln Center right next to the concert hall.
"If we lived there, we could walk across the street to Central Park," Lou said to Judy. And their imaginations churned with the possibility of volunteering with the circus and gaining free parking in big cities. A letter, along with their resumes, landed on the manager's desk at an opportune time.
Normally, the staff does not include volunteers, but there happened to be an opening for a tutor to work one-on-one with the children of circus families. After meeting with the management and the teacher of the traveling "one-ring school house," Lou decided to take on the responsibility. Throughout the season, he worked 15 hours a week in exchange for their travel expenses and hookup services on the circus lot.
"We signed up in early March, the day after a flood near Atlanta, Georgia, almost wiped out the tents," Lou notes. "We quickly learned that circus folks thrive on crisis and take all kinds of weather in stride, a concept that was reinforced later in New Jersey's mud. Judy and I concluded early on that these were the kind of people we wanted to hang out with: friendly, tough, smart, zany, and nomadic!"
Following a six-week stay in Boston, where they took advantage of the city's culture and history for field trips including Lou's students, they spent Mother's Day in a small town near George Washington's army camp during the winter of 1777.
"Washington's troops could not have been more miserable than the Big Apple Circus crew as they put up the tent and moved all the heavy rigs and equipment into a muddy field," Lou reports. "It took almost three days to build roads and set up the horse and elephant corrals, and the huge trailers that serve as housing, a central kitchen, offices, and dressing rooms. Exhausted teams of men and women worked round the clock to create a sense of community. They were still putting things in place minutes before the first performance."
At the New Jersey site, Lou and Judy were mere observers until a shortage of temporary help pressed them into service as ushers. Decked out in red shirts, black pants, flash lights, name tags, and cleaning rags, they sprayed and wiped clean their section of vinyl seats. When the doors opened, they smiled at the host of adults carrying children, waving tickets in hand, and balancing popcorn and souvenirs as they followed ushers to their seats. Judy worked every show, sometimes back-to-back performances, while Lou ushered only one show a day.
At that point, they became full-fledged members of the circus and were invited to join the parties after work, listen to stories, and eat in the cook-house. "We learned the real meaning of 'troupers' and the concept of 'the show must go on!'" Lou says.
However, as temporary employees, Lou and Judy could refuse an assignment to usher. And on occasion, they did sneak off for elegant dinners, movies, and Broadway plays, a bonus to their new roles.
After New Jersey, the circus headed for the concrete pavement of Queens, New York, and the safe asphalt of a University campus on Long Island. Before the season ends in late July, the Workamping couple will park in Chicago, Cleveland, and New England.
"One of the most joyous aspects of living in a house on wheels is seeing something exciting, interesting, or just plain strange from my windows," Judy says. "One morning, elephants took their showers. The trainer used hand signals only to get the massive animals to turn around and stand up to have their tummies hosed off. Another day, an Arabian horse grazed on the lawn in front of our door."
The previous day, Judy watched Bellow, a clown with red hair combed straight up, and Grandma, a short guy taking on an elderly woman image, play tennis with the baby elephant on the courts straight across from their trailer.
"Every day something happens right outside our door that reminds me we are in a very interesting place!" she continues. Additionally, Lou and Judy have given talks at upscale retirement communities on the subject of senior adults running away and joining the circus. And Lou has consulted with the circus' management in developing a volunteer program. "They are seeking volunteers to help with RV maintenance when they summer in rural New York," he adds. "I can vouch to any Workamper looking for adventure that there is never a dull moment when you travel with the big top."
Ed. Note. . . for more information, write:
Big Apple Circus35
West 35th Street
New York, New York 10001