There was no lion tamer, no bareback riding act or human cannonball. The sideshow was without a sword swallower. And the big-top was cheesey with small holes.
Then again, for $4, just 40 thin dimes, you got dancing elephants, prancing poodles, jugglers, high wire daring and clowns. For a few quarters more you could gawk at Homopongodie, the missing link discovered frozen in the highest Himalayas, and Miss Electra, whose body is immune to the effects of electricity.
"Where else," asked the barker for the Hoxie Brothers Circus, a 37-year-old traveling tent show that played on a muddy lot in McLean this weekend, "can you see so much for so little?"
Since 1943, when Hoxie Tucker began barnstorming southern cornfields and small town crossroads with a few trucks, a few clowns and a few man-eating beasts, his show has become a fixed, and respected, part of America's circus subculture.
While spectators raised on a high gloss diet of Barnum and Bailey might wonder why some of the people who ran away with this circuis had bothered to do so, the purists, of whom there were a few at Saturday's two shows, recognized Hoxie's one-ring circus as a traveling piece of Americana. A cause for cotton candied celebration.
"This is really the last of the old-timey circuses," said Frank Ball, an Arlington attorney and member of the Circus Fans of America. "And Hoxie is the last of the old-school circus owners left."
The circus, currently making its six-months annual trek through 26 states with two performances every day, seven days a week, has shrunk from three rings to one in the last decade.
"The circus ain't what it used to be. It can't be what it used to be," said the 69-year-old Hoxie, who blames television's allure and exorbiant energy costs for the cutback in size of his show. The circus travels by truck and mobile home, hitting a new town every day.
Hoxie, the show's namesake (there is no brother in Hoxie Bros.) is a round, merry man from Somerset, Ky., with mischievous blue eyes and a body that has survived five heart attacks.
"My daughter is so made at me she can't stand it because I won't quit," he says, doffing his straw hat. "But I don't want to stay home and wait to die."
For the 120 performers and roustabouts in the Hoxie Circus, life on the road is a body bending squeeze of hard work, travel, and too few hours of sleep.
This year's tour has been fairly typical, say performers. Since the show left Miami at the end of March it has been plagued by almost continual rainfall, mechanical breakdowns and small crowds.
One further headache awaited the show when it reached McLean. Because of a Fairfax County zoning ordinace, the circus was barred from its site next to Tyson's Corner shopping mall. Instead the trucks and tents were squeezed into a roundly curved grassy lot off Old Dominion Drive.
The total draw for the day's work: about 1,000 customers.
"Sometimes the idea of some other life appeals to me, but I really don't know any other life," said Rogert Boyd, the 28-year-old master of the sideshow who, like most of the skilled performers, was born into the circus.
"It's a strange sort of business," he continued, sitting in his trailer while his wife, Marina Diaz Boyd, readied herself in the kitchen/dressing room to be a target for his knife throwing. Their 6-year-old son sat nearby, watching cartoons. "The sideshow has changed so much since my father ran his. We used to have freaks, midgets and giants. Now, with modern medicine being what it is, we have a shortage of freaks."
Before the start of the afternoon show, some of the crowd of 500 people, about 400 of them children, paid an extra 50 cents to look at four sleeping python snakes or press their faces to the plexiglass grave of Homopongodie.
"He looks like my uncle George," said Richard Peet, who brought three of his children and four neighborhood kids to the show. Then he added with a smile, "I'm as nutty about circuses as they are."
Peet also forked up 75 cents per kid to see the sideshow. While Miss Electra lit a torch with one fingertip and Boyd narrowly missed his wife with knives, Peet continued, "There's something very romantic about these small-type circuses you don't get with Ringling Brothers."
The 90-minute show under the big-top was a fast paced mix of juggling, balancing acts and clowns. A dozen male poodles competed in doggie gowns for the Miss America title. The Campa Sisters cavorted on unicycles. And Miss Danuska, a fifth generation circus performer from Czechoslovakia, performed a star spangled helicopter spin 40 feet above the ground.
"It's 20 degrees hotter up there," said Miss Danuska's husband and partner Chuck Armstrong after he and his wife had slid to safety down a thick rope.
Armstrong is a rarity among Hoxie's performers because he was not born into the circus. He is a "towner," from Bradenton, Fla., who met Miss Danuska in a disco.
"I asked her if she wanted to dance," said the 23-year-old Armstrong. "She asked me if I wanted to run away with the circus."
The romantic notion of leaving home for the bright lights of the circus has not died, reports Hoxie. In almost every city and town, the 13- to 16-years old seek him out with wanderlust in their eyes.
"When all these young kids come around saying they want to run away from home I tell them to get a permit from their mother and dad," said Hoxie, who ran away from his father's butcher shop to join a traveling vaudeville troupe when he was 15. "It's just not like it used to be."
"We cover about 32,000 miles a season and never miss a date," said John Lewis, the circus publicity director. "It's hard for me to remember today where I was yesterday and don't even ask me where we'll be tomorrow. Every day you wake up in a different world."