There were plenty of bombshells to write about this week, domestic and international. I was pondering which to choose–Lewis v Trump, Paris Conference V. Israel, street murderer v. two cops–when the bombshell hit that blew up part of my childhood. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus would be no more. Oh there are others. And most are in the tradition of the original PT Barnum traveling carnival shows. But circuses are measured by rings and this one had three big ones.
I haven’t been to the circus in years, but only because I’m at a gap in my life into which no child in my family is the right age to fill. My daughter was the last. I am sad though, because there’s one whose ready, her son, my grandson, and another we hope will be, that is after he’s born and gets to be about six . They don’t know what they’ll have missed; I do.
There were three layers of excitement. The circus itself was only one. The savvy circus goer got there early. One could go “behind the scenes” so to speak and see some of the animals up close and personal. Performers were in various stages of preparedness running here and there looking for this and that. At least one of the clowns, sometimes several, wandered amongst the crowd making silly with the kids, giving away balloon animals, and doing magic tricks. Over here would be a midget over there a man 12 feet tall on stilts.The whole scene was overlaid with the odor of eau de wild animal. It smelled; I loved it. But even before that Wonderland experience, if you lived near the freight tracks you could watch the circus really come to town. Like the clowns out of little cars, out of the train came all manner of amazing stuff. It was a sight never to be forgotten.
Then it was time to take to the seats. Most all of the Ringling Brothers B&B circuses I went to as a child were at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Depending on the family’s economic status or just how much one’s parent’s would fork over for tickets–the circus is an expensive proposition–one often watched the circus through binoculars. They diminished the scope of the viewing, but not the excitement. The Garden would be dimly lit. Then someone would whisper,”Look!” and somewhere near or far would appear a clown. Somewhere else an acrobat would go tumbling for great distances. A beautiful woman in full costume would parade.
And at some point the lights would go up and the real parade would begin. All those people and animals from backstage would begin their entrance. It was enchanting–the waving, the kiss-blowing, the pageantry of it. And as if a symbol of it all were the elephants, nothing was a match for their majesty. We were too young to know something was amiss with all this. But isn’t that the way of magic and majesty? They short circuit your sensibilities while heightening your senses. Then out went the lights. It was dark, very dark, but not so dark that it was frightening. The forms of people and animals were visible through a haze. In those days you were sitting with ten or fifteen thousand people who were smoking cigarettes. Then “POW” out of that haze would fork a big beam of light in which was the ring master in tails and top hat to announce the start of the show. Ladies and Gentlemen……children of all ages……”
The circus was made for kids. There was always something going on. Over in this ring, jugglers, in that ring, the lion tamer, the other ring was rigged with wires, but no nets, and the Flying Wallenda’s would go flying from trapeze to trapeze. With a
“boom!” someone would come shooting out of a canon.The searchlights would take your eyes to where they should be, but the experienced circus goer knew to occasionally look through the dim unlighted haze and watch the preparations for what was next. It was all about anticipation.
Every kid had his or her favorites and not all of them were out in front, some were in the stands along with the patrons. Hawkers were selling huge spirals of cotton candy. There were peanuts and popcorn and Cracker Jacks. To this day my circus born addition to Cracker Jacks still infects my system. ‘can’t pass’em in the supermarket. There were little toys and games and a light that blinked to be bought. As PT Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute and two to take’em in.”
But after the first time of buying snacks and lights, I went for the salamanders. Yes, you read that right, the salamanders. For I don’t know how much, probably a dollar–that was a lot in the ’50’s–one could buy a salamander in a little cardboard box that was the replica of a circus train car. I was allowed one. I took it home and made a terrarium and learned how to keep them alive. I actually learned something at the circus about care of animals. And so grows this conflict.
I am a nut about animal conservation and I’m always writing or signing something to save the elephants in particular, not only in the wild but to get them out of zoos and other places that can’t care for them and have them transferred to places where they can at least live a comfortable life. In a hearing, Kenneth Feld, whose family bought the circus, made a case for how well the elephants were cared for. He also said that it isn’t a circus without elephants, that removing the elephant from the circus would be the end of the circus. He was probably right. They filed the elephants and attendance plummeted.
The majesty of the elephant is the majesty of the circus. Close your eyes and think of the advertising announcement for the coming of the circus. It isn’t a clown, I\it isn’t a lion. It isn’t a trapeze artist. It’s an elephant, a beauty on the back of the beast, a beast whose head bears a flat headdress as he raises up one foot in the air.
Many things killed the circus. Money chief amongst them. Train costs, talent costs, doctor and veterinarian costs, talent scouting the world, newer and more magical attractions like Cirque du Soleil, and feeding lots and lots of large animals with big appetites. Nor can we forgot the 400 some odd folks (actually some very odd…) who were its heart and soul, many in circus work for generations.
But ultimately it was the parade of laws and regulations driven by people like me. It hurts. It hurts that I was a part of depriving my grandchildren of experiencing for themselves the memories of my childhood and having them for their own. But ultimately it was the elephant or the circus. One had to go. And it was the circus. But for all that the circus gave us, if it’s lasting legacy was that we need to share better our lives with those who came long before us, even if they are animals, then that is a wonderful epitaph for a wonderful memory machine.