Signs of the past: The time the circus came to Sun City West

Posted 6/7/22

Lost in history is the time a real live circus came to Sun City West.

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Signs of the past: The time the circus came to Sun City West


Lost in history is the time a real live circus came to Sun City West.

The Sundome Center for the Performing Arts became the “Big Top” in 1982, and then again by popular demand in 1985. The four-story height of the interior provided space for trapeze artists to perform overhead. The high point of each program was the “Slide of Life,” where a daring performer hung by her teeth and slid 225 feet from the back of the hall to the stage over the heads of the audience. 

Tigers, elephants, clowns, fire-eaters, sword swallowers were among those that appeared in the Sundome. The parking lot outside offered sideshows in two huge tents, along with elephant rides, a petting zoo and more.

One act that never got off the ground involved an indoor fireworks display. A couple of test barrages were set off, activating every fire alarm system in the building!

Don Tuffs, Sun Cities Area Historical Society board president, served as general manager of the Sundome during its early years. Asked for his favorite performer, he replied without hesitation, Red Skelton.

“He would arrive several days before his show and tour local hospitals,” Tuffs said. “He preferred spaghetti and meatballs at my home to a meal in a fancy restaurant.”

His most difficult performer was the Steve and Eydie duo. Among their demands were bowls of M&Ms without brown ones.

“Their manager made such incessant demands on the lighting crew, they threatened to throw her into the lake!” Tuffs said.

Were any performers flops?

“I’ll never forget the nightmare that was Don Ho!,” Tuffs said. “His raunchy act drew boos. I wished I had a hook to yank him off the stage.”

While the Sundome may be gone, memories of events like the circus live on. It was a busy entertainment center with 110 events the first year. Lecture series and travelogues proved popular with a 6-lecture series featuring Paul Harvey selling 7,000 series tickets. The Sun City Symphony was filling the Sundial Recreation Center auditorium in Sun City and with some concern about filling the huge Sundome, moved there. They needn’t of worried. They soon were selling 5,600 season tickets — a record for any symphony in the nation.

A call for local talent in 1980 led to the first variety show featuring residents from the Sun Cities. The popular annual show grew in size to as many as 200 participants and went on for 27 years. It raised nearly $2 million for hospital equipment.

All good things must come to an end. As time went on, the huge auditorium had serious limitations that made it impossible to produce popular Broadway shows — the stage was too small, the “fly-space” over the stage too low to accommodate elaborate sets and the dressing rooms insufficient for the large casts. Operating costs went up, audience participation down and the Sundome’s reign came to an end.

A giant Fry’s food store replaced the Sundome, but borrowed two architectural features from it — the graceful arches of the Sundome exterior and the beautiful fountain from the outdoor courtyard. 

The Sundome lives on, too, at the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum, 10801 W. Oakmont Drive, Sun City, where a display gives a sense of the enormity of that auditorium. Six seats were removed by museum volunteers before the building was torn down and provide seating for visitors to watch one of several DVDs in what is now called the “Sundome Jr. Theater” — the smallest theater in Arizona.

Editor’s Note: Historian Ed Allen is a volunteer for the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum, 10801 W. Oakmont Drive, Sun City.