When I was a little girl my mother took me and my brothers to the circus every November. We never saw the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey variety. Instead we attended the Shrine Circus. I recall seeing men roaming around in funny looking fezzes and wondering who they were and why they were donning such silly headgear. At the time I still didn’t understand the good works that the Shriners did, so they seemed rather ridiculous to me. When a friend of my daughter’s was badly burned in a freak accident I learned more about the charitable organization that treated her wounds for free in their hospital in Galveston, and I became a very willing donor to their causes.
It was always an exciting treat to go the circus. I wasn’t a particular fan of the elephant acts and it would not be until I was an adult that I began to hear rumblings about cruelty to them. Instead I was fascinated by the high wire and trapeze artists. They seemed so daring as they swung and balanced high above us. I would sometimes attempt some of their tricks on the swings at the park or in my backyard and pretend that I too was a circus diva.
The clowns were mostly a bit too silly for my taste, but I never grew tired of watching a tiny car park inside the main performance arena in order to allow its passengers to exit. It amazed me that an endless stream of brightly dressed folk would keep coming out. I could not imagine how they had all fit inside. It never occurred to me that they were using tricks to fool us. I truly believed that all of those people of every possible size had somehow compacted themselves enough to squeeze inside the mini-automobile. Even when I grew older and understood how things work I found myself laughing hysterically at the age old schtick.
I didn’t care much for the lion tamers. I was not only afraid for the human inside the cage with such wild and dangerous creatures, but I also felt pity for the animals. It seemed wrong to have them so penned up and I hated that the performer kept cracking his whip at them. I really could have done without such acts, but I adored watching the men and women being shot out of cannons. That was something to see!
All in all I enjoyed all of my visits to the circus. I always purchased a fluffy ball of cotton candy to enjoy during the show and our mother usually bought peanuts for all of us to share. I never quite knew exactly where to focus my gaze because the show was truly a three ring circus with acts occurring simultaneously in three different areas of the stage. I worried that I was missing something while staring at one place, but I did my best to rotate my gaze every few minutes to assure that I would get a good view of almost everything. If I happened to have my eyes peeled in the wrong direction either my mother or one of my brothers would alert me with an exclamation to check out something special in another ring.
I was somewhat sad to learn that the Ringling Brothers Circus was coming to a final end. Supposedly they were not able to overcome the negative press about their treatment of elephants even after they decided to drop those acts from the shows. Somehow once there were no more of the big pachyderms on the stage attendance dropped off to unsustainable levels and the long time traveling show had to fold its tent forever.
When I heard the news I thought of all of the performers and wondered what they would now do. I know that many of them had come from generations of circus performers. They had literally grown up under the big top, traveling from city to city with their parents and grandparents and slowly learning the trade. I read of one performer whose circus pedigree went all the way back to his great grandfather. He had risen through the ranks serving first as a clown and ultimately being one of the headline balancing and acrobatic performers. He was planning to work with an Italian circus for the next eight months but after that he was unsure of what his future would hold.
I suppose that the whole idea of a circus became a bit too old fashioned for today’s world. There were worries about the treatment of animals and it became rarer and rarer to hear of a kid threatening to run away with a circus troupe. Cirque du Soleil is far more glamorous with its thematic and carefully choreographed acts. Many of the circus fans abandoned the old school ways for the modern, and the children didn’t have enough exposure to fall in love with the circus the way I did. It was no doubt inevitable that the Ringling Brothers Circus would ultimately fail as I suspect most of the others have as well.
I’ve often wondered if the concern about animal cruelty began to infiltrate the public consciousness in earnest with the Disney film Dumbo. To this day I can’t watch that movie without having an ugly chest heaving cry. It ranks as one of the saddest movies of all time in my mind and I suppose that it made me think about the plight of circus elephants for the very first time. Maybe that’s why I tended to look away when they performed even when I was only a small girl.
I suppose that there is a time and place for everything and the days of whole towns turning out to see the circus are gone. There are more exciting attractions that have superseded them. Still I can’t help but recall such fond memories of our annual ritual of attending the circus when it came to town and seeing my mother as excited as we were. I loved the feeling of imagining myself flying high above the crowd and jumping fearlessly from one trapeze to another even I as held my breath as the performers really did such things. How I loved the feathers and the glitter of the costumes and the booming voice of the ring master.
I’m as guilty as anyone for the demise of the circus for I quit attending performances decades ago. I became too busy with other pursuits and too unwilling to spend my money on something that no longer held the fascination that it once did. Perhaps there were a few too many souls like me to sustain the economic health of the business. It became less and less of the Greatest Show On Earth. Now there is no more Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and belatedly I feel nostalgically sad, for there was once a time when I thrilled to the grandeur of it all.