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Spotlight on Judy Gaeth, Director of Circus Operations

As she prepared to interview a candidate for this summer’s tour crew, Judy Gaeth reluctantly took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to talk with us about her role at Circus Smirkus. Judy has been with Smirkus for more than half its 30 year lifetime. She’s not one to talk about herself, so we had to beg to make this happen.

Here’s what we learned about Judy Gaeth, Director of Circus Operations.

On a whim in 2002, Judy answered an ad in the newspaper for Business Office Manager at Circus Smirkus and after a series of interviews, she got the job. Looking back, she says she applied because the position seemed a good fit with her experience and interests, but she’d never been a part of circus culture or something like the Smirkus Big Top Tour. She was in for an experience, for sure!

2002 was a time of transition at Smirkus, and her new job required that she jump right in and learn everything quickly from the ground up. “It was kind of death by fire in the business office, and you just had to learn it all by the seat of your pants,” she recalls with a laugh.

“Back then we did all of the ticket sales, camp registrations, you name it – we did everything through this office,” she said. “Why I stuck it out that first year I have no idea because it was just one fire after another, but I’m glad I did.”

Ask anyone who has worked with her, and you’ll find it’s hard to overstate the scope and importance of her contribution to Smirkus over the last 15 years, but it’s easy to see that love of Smirkus is at the core of what drives her.

“This feels like my life’s work. I just love this organization.”

Since 2006 Judy has been running operations for the entire Big Top Tour, including living on the road in a trailer in the summertime. “In 2005, I tried managing tour from the home office, but realized real quick that it wasn’t going to work,” she said. “I needed to be on the road to be a part of the whole team.”

She says the traveling experience has its pluses and minuses. “Essentially, it’s no sleep and it’s a lot of work, but about a week into tour the rhythm of the road sets in and it just becomes a ‘jump day’ or a ‘show day’ – the new normal.”

“Once you get a 100% operating crew out there then I can kind of stand back and watch the magic – because our crew really know their jobs, and they love their jobs and want to do them well. They take a lot of pride in what they do, and that’s something I always feel lucky to witness.”

When things are clicking along, sometimes she feels like she could head home for a stretch and people wouldn’t notice. “There’s a lot of management side of this work that keeps me locked in my camper at times – the reports to the home office, the managing of the inspectors, getting everything lined up so that it does go along without a hitch.” she says.

But when the unexpected happens, as it often does in life and circus, Judy is there to see it through.

Judy Gaeth & Founder Rob Mermin

“I think that’s the most rewarding part of the experience – because we all have to figure it out together and make it happen no matter what,” she said.

It’s the team building experiences that most folks come away from tour remembering, she says. “You don’t remember the days when everything went right as often as you recall the times we really have to pull together to put the show on the road.”

The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season was a notable example, when storms were up and down the whole east coast and hit many tour locations.

“Our whole tour was affected – we were practically stuck on every lot after the shows were over. That’s still the tour that everybody talks about.”

That year, there were lots that once we were set up, I pulled the keys so no one moved a vehicle until it was time to tear down and head out of town,” she said. And once it was time to go, forward motion wasn’t always an option. “Of course you’re pulling 35 foot trailers,semis and box trucks without four-wheel drive, and crews scrambling to place plywood in front of the vehicles to get them a good running start off the lot.”

“It takes the whole crew to make something like that happen,” she said. “And that’s still the tour many people remember most fondly.”

She says that even now, you can see traces of the Big Top Tour of 2008 on the Kennebunkport lot. “When we go back every year we still see some of the plywood in the ground, left over from what looked like an atomic bomb went off when we left that lot. It makes us all smile when we see it.”

Believe it or not, that Kennebunkport landlord is still fond of the Smirkus operation and is delighted to have the tour back every year, “even though we just about annihilated his land in 2008,” she says. “He even had the whole crew up in his house one year for a movie night!”

Then her thoughts turn to Sara Wunderle, Assistant Circus Operations Director, and she restates her discomfort with interviewing her in the first place.

“I don’t generally like to have any focus on me because it’s not about me, it’s about what we all do,” she says. “And good grief, Sara and I have been through hell and back together, and I cannot imagine doing any of this without her.”

Judy Gaeth, Director of Circus Operations (right), with Sara Wunderle, Assistant Circus Operations Director