I see in today’s paper that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus will be closing down at the end of this season, after nearly 150 years.
I regret that.
In many ways it’s true that the Ringling Brothers show has moved a long way from the circus tradition. Insanely high prices, huge arenas, intense merchandising of souvenirs and foods that really aren’t circus-based, and an emphasis on Vegas-style extravagance are all trends that started decades ago and have become what people associate with the circus and in those areas the circus just isn’t that appealing. And I guess they moved in those directions because it’s what a modern audience wants.
And it’s true that smaller regional circuses (even those still traveling and using tents) are in even more trouble and getting even fewer and farther between. Even the Big Apple Circus is filing for bankruptcy protection.
I’ve got a personal connection, though, or a set of them, to the circus, including the big arena shows, that makes me sad to see Ringling Brothers shut down.
As a kid I used to go to the Ringling Brothers circus, usually with my brothers and my grandmother (who for a while worked at a small local newspaper, so she got free tickets to all the circus, ice shows, and so forth). And I always loved it. I don’t remember any of the “scared of clowns” feeling that so many people talk about. I thought the clowns were hilarious. And I loved the aerialists and the animal acts and the music and the thrills every year. I remember from a very young age wishing to be a ringmaster. I was often overwhelmed by all that was going on (three rings can be too much–I never knew where to look). But the sounds and the lights and the smells spelled excitement in a way that no other popular entertainment did.
And in my doctoral research, I read circus memoirs (from George Sanger’s Seventy Years a Showman to Barnum’s Struggles and Triumphs) and studied the ephemera and popular press accounts of the circus. My own work was more explicitly with county fairs and carnivals but circus studies is certainly an allied field.
Even more than those connections, there’s the one summer, in 1981, that I spent working at a small circus. This was sort of an odd circus–it didn’t travel, but stayed in San Diego. Each performance was about a half hour long and there were many every day. And it didn’t have its own separate admission–it was hosted at Sea World and included in the admission price.
Sea World seemed somewhat ashamed or embarrassed or uncertain about its value. It was off outside the margins of the park, in the “Nautilus Showcase” (I think that’s what it was called), a separate stage and bleachers that many guests never really encountered. And I don’t think it ever came back after that one summer.
But for that one summer, even without the traveling, I got something of a feel of the circus family and experience–I was an outsider/newcomer (“first of may”). The “Circus by the Sea” assembled some real and traditional circus acts and some Las Vegas performers (the Volantes and their comic unicycle/juggling act).
Serving these performers, there were a couple of stagehands, in blue jumpsuits, running on stage and grabbing props, cleaning the lion cages, babysitting the wirewalkers’ kids, driving the pickup truck to the wholesale butcher to pick up cardboard boxes of pigs’ heads for the lions (those boxes were heavy and always soggy. And when they collapsed, it was not pretty to see what came rolling out) and doing whatever was necessary. One of those stagehands was me.
Circus life has a lot of down-time backstage and on the lot (most of the performers lived in their trailers right there at Sea World), and there’s a lot of socializing. Card-playing, pranks and practical jokes. Teaching each other new skills even from each others’ areas. (Ringmaster Dick Monday tried, without any success at all, to teach me WC Fields’ famed cigar box juggling routine. It’s a great gag. I still wish I could have mastered it.) It was a warm and welcoming family. I had a huge crush on Delilah Wallenda, the wire walker, who was sweet and friendly backstage, but an imperious goddess 30 feet in the air. The clowns taught me makeup. Jose and Monique Guzman (they rode a motorcyle on a tightrope) shared pozole and tacos with me at lunchtime. At night the younger performers and we stagehands would take a case of beer to the beach. Marcel the lion trainer would pretend to open the chute to let the lions in while I was shoveling out the cage.
During that summer, there was one week when the Ringling Brothers circus came to San Diego, and everyone from our circus packed up to go. Not to see the show–to see friends. I came along, even though of course I didn’t know anybody. But everyone else did know somebody–usually many somebodies. In-laws, cousins, old classmates from clown college, friends of friends. Our circus people knew so many other circus people and it was like everyone was related.
At one point, I ended up sitting with Marcel and some elephant trainers drinking beer. And I saw that not only did the people know the other people, but the animal people all considered their animals to be parts of the same extended family. Marcel asked about other lions and tigers who were working with cat men there and elsewhere–not just the trainers, but the animals, by name and with a real interest in their progress and lives. And he talked to the elephant guys about elephants they had, or elephants who were with other units or other shows, as real individuals they knew and cared about. That has always given me a different perspective on the “exploitation” of the circus animals. To the circus people I knew, the animals were circus people, too. They weren’t exploited. They were partners.
I guess we live in a world where the circus as entertainment is no longer viable. And I guess we live in a world where that kind of lifestyle for performers who make their own community in a small location and across an entire country doesn’t have a place anymore. And as I said, I regret that.