Ulysses Grevious used a shovel and a pick ax Friday morning to help save a show that he won’t see, but plenty of others will. Grevious, 44, won’t see the show, the Zoppé Italian Circus, because he’s an inmate at the Schenectady County Jail.
Friday morning he and seven other inmates dug an emergency trench around the tent to ensure that expected heavy rains don’t wash out Friday’s performances.
“Basically we all have children and we want to help the kids out the best we can,” Grevious said as he took a break from digging out the hard soil in the circus lot off Broadway. “Also it’s good that we get the opportunity to help the county out in an emergency situation during our incarceration. It feels really good.”
The Zoppé Italian Circus set up shop this week on the city lot at Broadway and Hamilton Street for performances Thursday through Sunday. The lot was perfect for the show, with the nearby parking garage. But it also provided grading issues that could have sent water from a sudden downpour seeping into the tent, putting a gloppy muck at center stage.
With the threat looming, officials with Proctors and the circus put out a call to the city of Schenectady looking for emergency labor to dig a trench around the tent to funnel water away. The city called the Sheriff’s Department.
“The big threat was that it was going to flood out the circus and we’d have a thousand disappointed little kids who couldn’t see the circus,” Schenectady County Jail Superintendent James Barrett said, “so they reached out to the sheriff in the midnight hours last night and said ‘we can’t get anybody else to help us, the rain’s coming.’” He added, “The sheriff was more than happy to come over and try to save the circus for the little kids.”
The call came from city Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen, Sheriff Dominic Dagostino said later. The lot is city property and they needed the work done fast, but couldn’t get the manpower.
The inmates on such details are hand picked, all considered non-violent and within three to six months of release. The crews are used on efforts including work at church bazaars and festas.
One such crew was called in last August to Schenectady County Community College, helping to move precious equipment out of harm’s way as Tropical Storm Irene’s flood waters moved in, Barrett recalled. Their work was overseen Friday morning by two armed corrections officers.
This effort helped ensure that Zoppé Italian Circus could continue. The show includes clowns in traditional Italian costumes, along with jugglers and trained horses and dogs, said head clown Giovanni Zoppé, known as “Nino.”
The inmate laborers on Friday worked carefully near the tent, the pride of the circus company. It was designed by the Zoppé family and billed as the “newest, best built and, arguably, most beautiful tent in North America.”
The inmates began work at around 8:30 a.m. and worked much of the morning with shovels, then with pick axes, to get through the hard soil studded with old bricks. The goal was a trench about 18 to 20 inches deep. Their work was done before the public arrived for the afternoon performance.
The trench proved its worth. An early afternoon downpour dumped rain quickly onto the site just before showtime, said Richard Lovrich, Proctors marketing director.
The water washed off the tent and into the trench, filling it about 4 inches but leaving the inside of the tent dry. A sump pump brought in as a backup to suck water out of the trench never turned on.
Zoppé showed his appreciation, Lovrich said, by grilling the inmates a lunch “in circus spirit.”
“The show is going on,” Lovrich said. “It was terrific,” he said of the help.
Five more performances are scheduled for this weekend at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. today and 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are still available.