You won't find his name in the glossy circus program and he has no death-defying act in the center ring. But without 64-year-old Charlie (Smitty) Smith, the Greatest Show on Earth would not go on.
For the last 20 years, the craggy-faced Smith has been the official trainmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, now playing at D.C. Armory.
The sleek, silver-and-red 39-car circus train houses 250 performers, 108 pieces of equipment, six automobiles, a menagerie, masses of feathered costumes and chugs into 85 cities each year.
Smith has seen it all: drunken nights, derailments, the Bulgarian circus performers building bonfires on the train tracks and says with a characteristic deadpan, "It's not the greatest life on earth."
Although the performers make it look easy, putting together a three-ring circus is grueling work. On a nonstop schedule from city to city, the circus usually performs two shows every day, with three shows on Saturday. It takes Smith and 12 workers three hours to unload the train. On "move out" night, it takes eight hours to pack up, finishing at 3 a.m.
The show people, he said, do not lead very glamorouus lives. "When the girls get up, they usually go to the laundromat or to the grocery store. Some of them drive their own cars from city to city."
The European performers, he said, like to have cookouts by the train tracks. They seldom dine at restaurants.
As trainmaster and supervisor of transportation, Smith works seven days a week, 11 months a year making sure things to well and the circus train runs on time.
"Occasionally," he says, "we leave someone behind."
When that happens, the straggler is told to hitchhike to the next stop. "They usually beat us, too," Smith says.
One night an elephant booted a man off the moving train. "He (the man) got skinned up, but not seriously hurt," Smith says. The trainmaster also remembers the night a drunken circus worker tried to practice tight-rope walking on top of a coach while the train was speeding along at 50 miles an hour.
"He fell off and rolled over and over like a log," Smith said. "Never broke a bone." But when the train stopped and picked up the slightly dizzy man, he tried to climb on top of the car again. That was prevented on Smith's order.
The circus train has four animal cars, which house 40 horses, 18 elephants, eight ponies, two llamas, two camels and one mule. "The giraffe goes by trailer," Smith said.
There are 11 equipment cars, a machine shop car, a dining coach called "the pie car" and 23 living coaches.
"There's a car especially for single girls, and one for single clowns," Smith said. And world-famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Wiliams "has almost a whole car for his wife and two children."
The train, which is two-thirds of a mile long, also carries a freezer truck filled with meat for the animals, three four-wheel-drive vehicles, one pickup truck, one personnel bus and Gebel-Williams' puma-colored Lincoln Continental.
The living quarters are comfortable, with carpeting, televisions, refrigerators, showers and full-size beds. Gebel-Williams has the only bathtub.
Trainmaster Smith shares his shag-carpeted half-car with wife, Kitty, and two circus mutts, Speedy and Spenuck. Like most circus people, he owns a home in Florida where he spends roughly four weeks a year.
Smith said he earns a comfortable salary and "the living conditions are better than they used to be." The circus is also more sociable than it used to be, he says.
"Show people are clannish people. They stick together. Hungarians with the Hungarians, Bulgarians with the Bulgarians, but it's better than it used to be. Performers never used to socialize with the workers, but now they do," he said. "It's like a big family."
A native of Illinois, Smith began his show business career in 1934 by joining Princess Iola's Vanity Fair Company, a medicine show where he performed black face comedy. Then he switched to knife throwing with his first wife as the target. He only missed once, Smith said, grazing his wife's calf with the blade. "She had to be sewn up," he recalls.
In 1956, after Navy duty and traveling with various circus shows, he joined the Ringling circus. It was the same year the company decided to stop performing in tents and began playing in indoor arenas, which Smith didn't mind at all. It meant no more sleeping in muddy lots.
"Boy, I remember having to sleep on bedrolls outside under a truck. You didn't have showers then, only a bucket of cold water."