Another pop culture element goes the way of memory: the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus–the only entertainment company that had the audacity to call itself “the greatest show on earth”– will close this year.
It’s not that the circus has in anyway died. Cirque du Soleil of Montreal reinvented the circus in the 1980s and now calls itself the world’s largest theatrical production company. Though I’ve only seen one Cique du Soleil show live, and watched a few on video. They are fabulous, and I’d probably see more if ticket prices weren’t so high.
Ringling Bros.’ prices were always low enough for families. I guess they made their money back on the food and souvenirs. Circuses also profited on the midway and the freaky, sometimes sleazy, “side-shows” that the crowds would pass on their way to big top. With montebanks elevating the dissimulation to an art, so many people were aware that they were tempted, taunted and tricked. But, as long as the trick was satisfying in some way, you felt you got your money’s worth.
I remember my first circus well. The elephants were just too big to believe. I was scared of the lion tamer, who proudly put his head in a lion’s open mouth. The high-wire and trapeze performers were so far above my head that I couldn’t quite figure out what they were doing, but, from the cymbal crashes, I guessed that it was rather important to stay up there as they pranced, hopped and tumbled through the air.
The performers I adored were the clowns. I was close enough to the center ring to see Emmet Kelly and loved everything he did. Most clowns I saw were on television, starting with Claude Kershner’s Super Circus. I made the connection between Kelly’s sad pratfalls and the physical comedy of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion in the movie version of the Wizard of Oz. Later, when reading Lahr’s biography, I saw how so many of the moves, and the “gnong, gnong!” he shouted when afraid, came from an old vaudeville act Lahr did, in which he pretended he was a German immigrant fresh off the boat.
Another clown who thrilled me was Harpo Marx. His brother’s had a nasty edge. Harpo could be mischievous, but his antics came from a childish desire to delight.
When my family moved from Hackensack to Willingboro, New Jersey, the Clyde Beaty & Cole Brothers Circus filled an open field that, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day, Abraham Levitt did not fill with prefabricated, assembly-line constructed houses. I saw some shows there, though they seemed long and not as exciting as Ringling Bros. Greatest Show.
The Beaty and Cole Bros. Circus had its home base in New Jersey, on a patch of land off Route 130 near a stretch of farm stores. As a child, I’d wait for the moment when we’d drive past, hoping to glimpse something amazing among the trucks and empty cages parked beside the road.
Later, when I had to cross this field to visit the house of the girl who became my wife, I recalled that, on this dusty, forlorn spot, elephants and acrobats worked magic on hot summer nights.
In college I presumptuously signed up for a course in “Illegitimate Theater” that featured a one week Arena Performance Workshop taught by Bill Irwin, an Oberlin undergrad who went on to the Ringling Bros.’ Clown College in Sarasota, Florida. I learned how important rhythm and timing were to getting a laugh, and I never forgot the advice of Lou Jacobs, one of Ringling’s most famous clowns, as transmitted by Irwin: “When you fall, make a lot of noise, boys.” I made an instant cultural connection with the Jewish kvetch–the verbal complaint that, when done just right, turns solitary suffering into family and community sympathy, or, better yet, laughter that can shake a theater and conquer unreasonable tragedy with joy.
I also learned that clowns had to master acrobatics so that they would survive injury from so many pratfalls. These same acrobatics–shoulder rolls and breakfalls–were part of ukeme, the “art of falling” that is so essential in the Japanese martial aikido.
Later, as I scrambled for journalism to write to pay the bills, I was given the typical cub reporter Ringling Brothers assignment. I decided to write about the guys that clean up after the elephants. The story was a hit, and it came with a reward–a free ticket. By now the circus was in a Philadelphia hockey arena, but, having read the biography of P.T. Barnum, I appreciated how the three ring circus, which began as a way of increasing the performance area to pack more people into a tent, was one of the first pop cultural sensory overloads.
The book review editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer heard of my enthusiasm for the circus and gave me books to review about the circus’s history and famous performers. I visited a sacred spot in the city at 12th and Market Streets, where Rickett’s Circus–the first in the American colonies–had its roofless arena. Though the city’s Quakers despised it, President George Washington attended a performance in 1793! I
When my son was born, the circus wasn’t for me, or for him, what I expected. We went back to that big hockey arena, but, because I wasn’t making much money (or writing an article about it), the only tickets I could afford were far enough away so that even the extravagant gestures of the clowns seemed small and, sadly, aimed at the people who could afford the front row seats. Ringling Bros. had so many flashy costumes, numerous animal and acrobatic acts, and many, many overpriced snacks and souvenirs that I felt as if I were at DisneyWorld, where so much, and so many experiences boil down to an effort to remove money from your pocket. Yes, the entertainment industry must make money to survive (I remember watching Penn & Teller pass the hat in Philadelphia’s South Street), but the experiences should be sufficiently surprising and uplifting so you don’t feel like one of those suckers that (as P.T. Barnum did NOT say) were born every minute.
When I saw my one and only Cirque du Soleil show (at DisneyWorld, of all places!) my faith in live performance was restored. Everything about the show was wonderful, and if the tickets were the highest I had spent up to that time, I felt the experience was more than worth my while.
As a journalist covering Atlantic City, I reviewed several shows the casinos brought in that were supposed to capture and communicate the delight of circuses. I even saw a Cirque du Soleil knock-off called Cirque Dreams that, like most knock-offs, is an “almost” that makes you wonder what the “real thing” might be like.
I’ll never forget Penn Jillette’s famous monologue about the fire eater, which so marvelously shows the cost and mania of acrobatic performance. The fire eater works in semi-darkness. You only see his face when the fire is lit. He is doing a stunt that he has practiced obsessively for years. When other people were letting life blow them about as a leaf, when they were going out on Saturday nights with friends, the fire eater was practing and practicing until he got the act down. Every times he performs, he is exposing himself to genuine danger: you get burned frequently. You must concentrate. And you must forget about the fact that chemicals that make the fire that you swallow leave a residue on your skin and in your throat. This residue will slowly poison and maybe kill you one day. But, while you’re performing, while you’re literally playing with fire, you have the attention of everyone around you. You are the center of the universe until…you blow the fire out.
The circus, I came to understand, is like that. You have people who dedicate their lives to a series of stunts that are done live, without much to save them if, and when, things go wrong. I learned that many clowns were once acrobats who fell or injured themselves so badly they could no longer do what they loved, and so they changed their act, just to stay in the extended family of the circus. I know that there is a town in Florida where circus performers retire. I know that that PETA and others did not see the style and mastery of a lion tamer’s art, or the majesty of a parade of elephants: they saw animals abused and coerced into doing undignified things.
Were the animals abused? I asked tamers and trainers. They insisted they weren’t, but they admitted of knowing some animal performers who were.
In the articles that follow Ken Feld’s announcement that end of Ringling’s run, many reasons are offered for the circus’s demise, including the problems with PETA and other animal rights groups. Attendance went down when the elephants were taken out of the show.
The cost of moving the show throughout the country also went up. And, for some kids, watching the most incredible feats of skill, and comic pratfalls, is not as much fun as what you get from your tablet or cell phone screen. As a child, my son enjoyed watching monster trucks spit flames and squash cars more (Feld also has a touring monster truck show). So far, none of the articles about the end of the Ringling Bros. mention the fact that Cirque du Soleil is now, for want of a greater superlative, the best circus on earth.
And what of those people who, for whatever reason, obsessively practice fire eating, street mime, acrobatics and other physical performance arts for that one moment when they can be at the center of the universe? Where will they go?
As one who has marveled at them and, in ways big and small, aspired to be like them, I want to thank them, for showing me that life may not be wonderful most of the time, but when it is, all questions are answered.