The circus ran away with Howard Tibbals.
Days, Tibbals is as hardheaded a businessman as the Hartco parquet flooring made by his 450 employes. In his workaday world of Oneida, Tenn., people, problems and pleasures are as big as life.
Nights, for 30-odd years, Howard Tibbals lives in a hardly ever land where, godlike, he creates people not much taller than his little finger, elephants hardly larger than the palm of his hand and pleasures enough to fill a whole miniature circus big top.
Tibbals is one of the rare people who have managed to keep the true mark of the artist: the ability "to become as a little child," as Sister Mary Corita, an artist who liked circuses herself, used to say.
He sends in not only the clowns, but the elephants, tigers, ringmasters, trapeze artists, acrobats, hot-dog purveyors, wagons and circus trains as well to his three-ring circus. The million or so pieces make up the Howard Bros. miniature circus, 6,000 square feet of Lilliput land, on view until June in the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall.
Tibbals doesn't know how much it all cost him and he doesn't care. "The Lord has been good to me. I don't drink or smoke or go to football games, though there's enough money for the other members of the family to go to Hawaii or Switzerland if they're a mind to," Tibbals says, with some satisfaction.
He's 49 now and he wears his hair like a cap pushed back on his head. He and his wife Marjorie have six children, ages 15 to 27, none of whom give a hoot about his miniature circus. He's hoping for grandchildren who'll have better taste.
Tibbals cares. He cares so much he spends 15 to 20 hours a week carving a tiny acrobat, embroidering an elaborate evening gown for a horseback rider or using tweezers to extract rhinestones from old pieces of jewelry to transform them into a performer's tiara.
He doesn't make all the tiny fauna and figures. He has a talent for finding what he needs, in the way of other collectors or other craftsmen. And like most good Tennesseans, he has a story to tell about everyone.
Take Charles Deck, for instance. He's dead now, but he was a great carver of horses in his day. "When he was coming off a drunk, he'd say, 'I'm drying out and ready to carve you some more elephants.' He'd sober up by carving elephants 'cause they were easier than horses. Charlie Deck was a specialist. He'd paint horses but not zebras. He hated to paint zebras, so I'd do them," says Tibbals. "Charlie got me into a lot of trouble in Oneida. He came to town to make animals for me. And he'd go into the local bar and draw lewd pictures and swap them to the bartender for six-packs. Soon those pictures were all over town, and I was getting the blame for bringing him to town."
Though Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are not what you'd describe as happy about being cut down to one-sixteenth of normal size (three-fourths of an inch to a foot scale), Tibbals based his show on theirs, circa 1920-1930. Some years back in Florida he found a designer for Ringling Bros. who had left the circus involuntarily 20 years previously and kept all his drawings in his basement. Tibbals bought them from him and has patterned his costumes on them ever since.
Once he asked Ringling Bros. for permission to name his circus after theirs. "But they turned me down, so I called it Howard Bros. I never had a brother, but all circuses are called 'Bros.' whether they had one or not. Since they turned me down on the name, I've been glad. Imagine having to paint 'Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' on all those railroad cards. Why it would've taken me two more years."
When he can find them, Tibbals buys pre-World War II miniature animals made in West Germany and Austria. Sometimes, like some mad scientist on the late late show, he'll cut off a head and reposition it to fit in better with his acts -- the lion and tiger acts, the dancing horses, the red wagon menageries.
He spends a lot of time on the phone, buying hundreds of folding plastic miniature chairs for bleachers. Not long ago, he talked for two hours with a friend who's a circus historian, debating whether the railroad cars' offices in Ringling Bros.' winter quarters actually were the private cars of the Ringling brothers.
Not many circuses today are as complex as Tibbals'. Under the big top are dancing horses, acrobats and a wild animal training act on two revolving rings and a center stationary ring, not to mention clowns and other performers. The food tent is set with glasses no bigger than a fingernail to be filled from big kettles. The pile of logs awaits the fire. A dressing room is furnished with canvas sling chairs for the performers not yet on stage. The hot dog, cotton candy and Cracker Jack men are fully stocked. The teddy bears in the kiosk wait for strong-willed children with softhearted parents. A trolley down Main Street delivers the excited audience. The ticket sellers have real small change. You can almost smell the manure pile. The seal splashes his approval of his tank. The billboard trumpets the performance. The horses and the elephants wear elaborate harnesses, all made by Tibbals.
The important figures all have names -- ringmaster Fred Bradna, band director Merle Evans (the real one is still alive at 93), the boss canvas man George Werner, the cookhouse chief George Blood -- all called after real people with Ringling Bros. Tibbals calls them by name when he's talking to them, which is most of the time, or searching for them. One "blond gal" in a purple dress, embroidered with silver snowflakes, for example, had elected to go down to the storeroom with the unused posters, instead of going to work on one of the floats.
For the last 30 years, the circus has grown slowly. Like the real circus, everything folds as compactly as possible to fit into one of the 46 miniature railroad cars. The 4,000 posters (100 are in the show), circus programs and brochures (two-thirds bought from the collection of noted circophile Harold Dunn) are carefully stored in 48 blueprint drawers in 20 filing cabinets at 70 degrees, 50 percent humidity, as the Library of Congress suggested. The basement storeroom and workroom has 16-inch-thick concrete walls and a thick concrete ceiling, "built like a vault," Tibbals says.
Only twice has the circus been completely set up in all its glory on a 2,250-square-foot table. (Tibbals rides a sled set on rollers underneath the table to emerge in one of the two cutouts to make adjustments or have his picture taken.) The first time was at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., where Tibbals has kin. A group of exhibit experts from Disneyland inspected and approved Tibbals' show. The second is the current show at the National Geographic Society. Purpura and Kisner, New York exhibit designers, came down to design a whitewashed fence and an expansive setting for Tibbals' triumph. Television monitors show both a real circus and Tibbals setting up his tiny one.
Putting it all together -- placing the figures just right, raising the big top, putting the train cars on the track -- took Tibbals and two assistants two months. And every eight weeks, he'll have to come up from Oneida and clean all the figures. At the world's fair, he spent 10 hours a week dusting them (an old, washed-soft baby diaper for the larger figures; for the small, a camel's hair brush).
Tibbals made his first circus wagons as a kid. When he went away to military school, his mother cleaned them up along with his room. Thirty years ago, when he was going to North Carolina State University, he read measurements for a circus big top in Popular Mechanics and he made a big top with his wife's sewing machine. He saw Harold Dunn's miniature circus in a store in Raleigh, and they became fast friends, trading photographs and measurements.
The opening at the National Geographic Society was a big day for Tibbals. Almost as big as that day when the 3-year-old Tibbals saw his first circus and a steamroller flattened a clown to just a long stream of clown-patterned paper. It's taken him 46 years to get a picture of the steamroller. But Tibbals has it now and he's working on the act.