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The End Of The Road

The things that entertain us, as a collective audience, have changed drastically over time. I personally never attended a Minstrel Show, but I understand they were beloved by many in their day. Radio was a very popular element of people's lives, and I guess there are still some that listen to certain forms of radio broadcasts, but it's definitely not the crucial source it once was...

And even television has flattened and thinned and has been redefined to go to areas beyond the device itself, with websites producing programming, and our collective ability to watch programs on our computers and phones is more than proof of that.

But with all of these changes over time, there was one constant: The Circus. And by "The Circus," I mean THE Circus: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

A Legendary "Combined" show The Ringling Brothers originally had their own circus, P.T. Barnum, the ultimate impresario, had exhibits which he would display and tour and James A. Bailey teamed up with him. Together these three entities would help carry this particular form of entertainment that has been a staple in the American fabric for nearly a century and a half.

Before television, before filmed newsreels even, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus brought audiences into a world they never would have seen, otherwise. Animals from other continents right in front of your nose to watch perform... unique acts that would amaze, from aerialists that did multi somersaults, mid-air, to the big cat tamers that risked their lives in a cage with twenty tigers.

And then, there are the clowns, the heart of the show, there to bring a smile, a tear, and maybe even a thought about humanity as we go.

The term "Sensory Overload" could have been coined for this three ring monstrosity, that demanded you look everywhere at once to see everything going on! It was organized chaos and confounded and delighted millions throughout time.

So, we have heard the news:

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing in May.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall as of a couple of years ago, when New York's boutique show, The Big Apple Circus, shut down. A beloved part of the scene for decades with its single ring and intimate setting, even it couldn't withstand a difficult economy and an era where most people simply didn't care as much about the tradition of this kind of entertainment.

When I was a kid, the Ringling show would come to town and camped out at Madison Square Garden for an unbelievable thirteen weeks... practically every school in the tri-state area took a trip to see the show during the spring, getting the requisite box of popcorn, the cotton candy, and the tiny flashlight on a string that you would swing over your head during a show "blackout" as the Ringmaster would announce the next performers.

The Circus is a throwback to the past, an historic relic of the way things were. Most people had no way of seeing animals like zebras or elephants up close until the circus came through town back in the 1940s and 50s

And that is, of course, part of the problem. As people understood the elements of what it meant for animals to live and perform on a traveling show, there was a constant outcry over the conditions for them. No matter your feelings on this issue, the protests that occurred had an impact on the way the show functioned and how it progressed.

And even with improvements that helped to support the care and raising of these wonderful creatures, eventually the call for change meant not just an adjustment in what was appropriate, but a complete overhaul and eventual dismantling of that element of the circus.

Certainly with alternate, but similar forms of entertainment, with zoos and aquariums becoming more common across the country, and with theme parks starting to be available in every state, suddenly the interest in a show like this wasn't quite the same, either... and even the Feld family, who have been the producers of this show for decades, had also been creating other, similar entertainment, like ice shows, that perhaps had, in their way, cut into the profit of the tentpole itself.

Maybe you were a person who attended a Ringling performance every year, going when you were a kid, maybe taking your kids to see it when you had a family. Or maybe you didn't attend, but liked the concept of what a circus meant. There's a sort of mystical, magical element to a show, people working together, traveling the countryside, performing, bringing a smile, a laugh, a thrill, some positive elements to the lives of others before they move on to the next town - the addition of some excitement and color to an otherwise average existence. That's why the concept of "running away with the circus" held so much romance and charm... you could leave your life as it was and become a part of something that made life brighter, brassier, better.

The collective history of what was known as "The Greatest Show on Earth" had its share of tragedy. Jumbo the Elephant, The Hartford Circus Fire and more recently, some of our community were remembering the deadly Ringling Train Derailment of 1994 which was January 13th of that year, twenty-three years ago now.

There was also some positive inspirational elements too, as the film "The Greatest Show on Earth" won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1952. There was the Broadway show Barnum which won a Tony Award for Jim Dale. And now, almost as a final coda, we have a new film, titled "The Greatest Showman" with Hugh Jackman in the role of Phineas Taylor Barnum, due for a Christmas 2017 release.

Personally, Ringling changed my life forever. I might have remained in a stale retail sales job. Being a manager for a department store seemed to be my life's direction until I got the call to go to Clown College. Because of that, I got some wonderful skills which I still use frequently. I got some fascinating jobs over time which took me to some pretty interesting places. And most importantly of all, I got a wonderful collection of friends and I became a part of a family of sorts. There are less than two thousand people who completed Ringling's Clown College course over the nearly thirty year history of that institution, making this a very exclusive group. I'm both pleased and honored to be among those ranks.

Recently, clowns have gotten a worse than usual name because of the actions of a few. But despite bad publicity, various protests and other elements, circuses haven't gone away completely. There are still some out there touring, and even some in residence in particular locations, so we can't quite say the art form is dead, but this is a very big and very notable milestone that is imminent. This is the loss of a part of our collective family tree.

At the end of every performance, the ringmaster of the Ringling show would make a seven word statement to the crowd as they gathered their belongings, their family members, their souvenirs and their memories of what they just witnessed. It was a way of holding the concept of what the show was about to the hearts of those who attended. I can't think of any other way to conclude but by offering them again, now.

"May All Your Days Be Circus Days."

This entry was originally posted at http://penpusher.dreamwidth.org/744518.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 15th, 2017 08:21 am (UTC)
I thought of you immediately when I saw the story earlier tonight. I know I went to see Ringling Bros at least twice at the Garden, and I'm pretty sure my parents took me to see Big Apple out here on Long Island back when the Commack Arena still existed and actually had events like circuses and music concerts (part of Frampton Comes Alive was recorded there -- later it was a skating rink, then a flea market, and now the space it occupied was paved over and it's a parking lot for a big shopping center which includes our local Target).

It's very sad that this art form is dying, with or without animal acts. :(
Jan. 15th, 2017 10:40 am (UTC)
Much like all the dinosaurs, their deaths were because of their lack of adaptation. Despite the Feld girls taking over the show and in spite of them removing the Elephants from performances, retiring them to that refuge they set up, they did very little to focus and change the show for an audience that required something different.

Ringling was a massive effort and the cost of just getting the show from city to city was a huge expense. Needing to traffic with Amtrak about times and tracks available alone was a challenge.

It had been a few years since I saw the show (one of my classmates from Clown College was playing in the pit band the last time I went). But I guess I'll have to go now. Don't know if I'll brave the final performance on Long Island... but maybe.
Jan. 15th, 2017 08:31 am (UTC)
We used to be let out of school to watch the March of the Elephants as they made their way down to the Garden. I don't remember when they stopping doing that -- I imagine I must've been in second or third grade?

I also wonder if Cirque de Soleil had any part in their demise?
Jan. 15th, 2017 10:53 am (UTC)
In some cities, the "Animal Parade" was a spectacle and was done in broad daylight so that everyone could see it. It served as a calling card for the town they were visiting to remind everyone that the show was there and here's a sample of what's in it.

In NYC they eventually decided to do this in the middle of the night, when the Queens Midtown Tunnel was at its least crowded. It also reduced the number of people involved in protests organized by PETA and other groups.

Competition is crucial for entertainment and certainly when Cirque du Soleil first burst onto the scene, it was a revelation, a reinvention of the art form. It really became what the circus needed to be for a new era... with only domestic animal performers, a focus on human acts and the music! I still will spin several of those Cirque albums because those tracks were so incredible.

It's undeniable that Cirque had an influence on all other circuses. Ringling even tried a one ring show experiment under canvas a couple of years back, and that clearly had everything to do with their French Canadian rivals.

But, as is nearly always the case of someone attempting to mimic what someone else has done, the results were less than satisfactory... and Ringling couldn't keep doing things the way they had because audiences were no longer accepting of it.

I'm sure they considered every option and figured this was the time to stop.
Jan. 17th, 2017 12:38 am (UTC)
Such a deeply-felt essay about this sad ending of an era.

Unlike zoos and aquariums, the animal acts were very much about animals working. I know this is so terribly difficult and complicated a subject, but having owned large animals in my life, I do know that many of them enjoy being trained, enjoy working, enjoy being rewarded. And I certainly hear how that sounds like an enslavement and I know that animals are NOT on earth for our entertainment....but I'm torn on this. The dog act, the horses and zebras, even the elephants, the camels...these are animals that are domesticated. I don't enjoy the big cats in the same way that I don't enjoy whales in captivity...


I do know that for myself, seeing the animal acts every year as a child was far more important to me than the daredevils. The animals made me love domestic and wild creatures and certainly created a sense of animal welfare and animal justice in me from my earliest and youngest years.

I also believe that clowns are an archetype that have served us since we lived in caves...and that is a huge loss.
Jan. 17th, 2017 09:01 pm (UTC)
It is a difficult thing to understand, this issue of "wild animals" working in a show. And it's easy to suggest one response or another because they can't speak to us to say what they truly feel.

Conversely, they do speak to us though - through their actions through their temperaments, through how they react both during a performance and offstage. Elephants, especially, are about the smartest creatures around (I swear, many of them are smarter than some of the human performers on the show)! If they are being abused, it doesn't take long to find out about it and it's very clear who is responsible. There have been such cases and trainers have been fired for it over time. The problem is that when info like that gets into the general public, it's often assumed that this is standard practice when it is not.

I get why people have become outraged over animals on the circus. We should appreciate these creatures for what they are, not the fact that they can stand on their hind legs and wave or jump through a burning hoop of fire. But your point is well taken - seeing the animals helps to develop a love and caring for them. And, being fortunate to have ridden an elephant, it is an amazing and wonderful experience... and I am endeared towards them because of it.

I think unless everyone is going to become vegan, animal abuse is part of our culture. It's just that when it comes to your groceries, you don't see it. So, between the two Ringling Circuses (yes there are two touring companies that are closing) nearly two thousand people will now be unemployed... roughly sixty of them, clowns.

That's show biz!
Jan. 19th, 2017 09:32 pm (UTC)
I understand people's concerns about animal cruelty, but I have such mixed feelings about the end of the institution. The human acts were pretty darned fascinating (the trapeze act was one of my favorites), and it has to be a hard blow to one who actually trained at the clown school!

I can't believe it set up for 13 weeks every year in New York. That is awesome!
Jan. 19th, 2017 10:44 pm (UTC)
The animal acts are a difficult element to understand, especially from the outside looking in. When the circus was a relative new thing, of course there was never a concern about that. I think there was some film of a different circus where trainers were seriously abusing animals, and that helped prompt the original outcry. Then, the assumption was that every circus was handling their non-human performers that way too.

Ringling, for their part, had a very good record of animal care and it showed, because animals that are not treated properly would not perform correctly, and there were maybe one or two incidents of any animal issues on those shows during the last fifty years or so.

I think we all just took for granted that the show would continue on, even with the new configuration of no elephant performers.

The Greatest Show on Earth and The World's Most Famous Arena = Madison Square Garden - kind of were an alliance over the years. And maybe that was the signal that the show was going to end... when the Circus stopped playing at MSG, going instead to the Prudential Center in New Jersey and the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn... that was a jolt.

And yes! Thirteen Weeks in NYC was both a boon to the show, and a great opportunity for the performers, many of whom were from Europe, South America, Asia and Africa to have some time (usually Sunday Evenings, Monday Afternoons and the occasional scheduled off days) to explore the city, learn about it, and to have a chance to get a sense of what it was all about.

All in all, a chapter of the American Story is coming to a close. I wish the circus would have given us a heads up. The final shows all sold out and scalpers are selling the tickets for 2000 bucks a pop.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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