LIMA, Peru — A 38-year-old man dressed in drag appeared on a makeshift catwalk at the far end of the stage and waved his arms in greeting.
"Thank you for coming to my circus!" shouted Ernesto Pimentel, known to all as La Chola Chabuca, the star of a top-rated TV variety show in Peru.
Dressed in a yellow hoop skirt with red roses, a yellow headdress and oversized yellow high heels, Pimentel carefully descended a metal staircase as children and their parents under the circus tent — 1,000 people in all — screamed their delight.
The month of circuses has begun in Peru, a folkloric 100-year tradition built around the country's independence day, July 28, and some 40 big-top and mom-and-pop circuses are putting on shows in the capital alone.
While the custom remains strong, however, the traditional circuses increasingly find themselves unable to compete with La Chola Chabuca and other TV stars. The newcomers mix clowns and trapeze artists with song and joke performances straight from their TV shows.
"They are opportunists trying to make a quick buck," said Enrique Cavallini, 72, who still moves with athletic grace after 60 years as a circus performer.
It seems to be what the public wants, however.
On a cement lot just off Plaza Grau, the traditional home for old-line circuses in downtown Lima, a dozen performers flipped, did tricks with jump ropes and balanced on high beams. Clowns broke up the pace with gags involving brooms, chairs and plastic rats.
The crowd applauded and laughed appreciatively, but the 200 people filled only a tenth of the seats.
"When I was a boy, the circuses in Lima were full," lamented Joaquin Gaston Maluenda, a visiting clown from Chile, which also holds a circus month around the country's independence day, on Sept. 18.
Cavallini's great-grandparents organized Lima's first July circuses in the early 1900s.
For decades afterward, Lima residents flocked to the Plaza Grau to attend any of a half-dozen circuses, some from Chile, Mexico and other Latin American countries. The circus performers all knew one another, and each circus had its own soccer team.
The circuses kept going even when Shining Path guerrillas were setting off bombs during the 1980s and early 1990s in a failed attempt to overthrow Peru's democratically elected government.
"They must have understood that we were entertaining the people," said Ricardo Flores, a longtime circus owner.
Circus month traditionally kicks off about July 20, in part because workers get extra salary in July.
"Peruvians usually don't earn enough for entertainment," Pimentel said. He was sitting on a couch backstage after a recent show, still resplendent in La Chola Chabuca's latest costume, this one matching her red lipstick.
Tickets range from $3 for a bleacher seat to $13 for one of the plastic white chairs that ring the stage.
Pimentel will hold about 50 performances over a 30-day period in the back parking lot of a just-opened shopping mall that's using La Chola Chabuca as a drawing card.
La Chola's show began with two clowns blowing giant bubbles into the crowd, featured six dogs trying to knock balloons into two goals in a makeshift soccer match and concluded with the appearance by the star, who was hoisted onto the stage by a hidden forklift.
"People come because I'm a TV star," Pimentel said backstage. "I put on the show because while I perform for millions on TV, I don't see or hear them. Performing before the crowd here is magical."
Circus-goers gushed about the show.
"We wanted to have a good time with our daughter," Batronila Lagos said as she lined up with dozens of others afterward to have a photo taken with La Chola Chabuca.
Another dozen TV comics have their own circuses in different corners of Lima.
For technical sophistication, no circus in Peru can match La Tarumba. It was founded 25 years ago by three clowns but now mixes Cirque du Soleil-like acts with high-wire daring and plenty of mind-bending acrobatics, but no clowns.
On a recent evening, the crowd roared as artists dressed as highland Incas did handstands on horses that galloped around the ring. Minutes later, a performer practically sprinted up a pole and then slid down headfirst, stopping inches from slamming into the ground.
The following night, in a poor neighborhood in Lima, about 60 people sat on wooden bleachers under a battered tent to watch Manolo's International Circus, a grand name for a bare-bones outfit. Tickets cost $1 or $2.
Three clowns entertained the crowd with Three Stooges-like slaps and pokes in the eye. A young woman in a miniskirt, bare midriff and white boots then wiggled her hips to a recorded salsa tune.
Another young woman spun around a rope held by Manolo Castillo, a 43-year-old performer who at other times manned the sound system in the corner, played straight man to the clowns and set up a net during intermission.
"Other circuses are bigger," Castillo said, "but the show is the same."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow South American news at McClatchy's Inside South America