Taking down the Big Top
Back in 1871, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses joined to create “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The other day the company announced that it was closing.
One bit of my childhood, gone in the blink of an eye.
As usual, I exaggerate. In truth, for me the golden era of circuses ended long ago.
Like many of you, I grew up with traveling circuses that rolled into small town America to amaze and delight bumpkins like myself.
I saw my first in 1947, when animal trainer Clyde Beatty brought his show to Selma, my home at the time. It arrived by train. My father took me down and we stood by the siding as the jungle cat cages were transferred to horse drawn wagons. Then the large animals – elephants and such – were lined up and paraded down the crowd-lined main street and across the Edmund Pettus to the field where they set up the Big Top.
The next day we went to see the show.
Inside the tent were three rings full of clowns, trapeze artists, bareback riders, and performing elephants. The star of it all was animal-trainer Beatty, who put lions and tigers through their paces. Though only a tot, I remember it well.
A few years later, when we moved from the city to a small town, the circus followed – or at least a smaller version of it.
During the 1950s, once a year the circus came to my little town and set up in a vacant lot across the highway from my house. My friends and I descended on it, offered our services to help put up the tent. Once we were given free tickets to the matinee – maybe in hope that we would bring paying parents, but more likely in an effort to get us off the property and out from underfoot.
Besides, they knew that once we came for the main show we were likely to spend time and money at the Midway games and exhibits – and we did.
Along the Midway I got to see the “Fat Lady” and her thin husband,” the “Dog Faced Boy,” the “Wild Man from Borneo,” and a host of other people and animals that were advertised as “Freaks.” I did not get to see the “Girly Show,” that was open only to men, but the “Barker” who teased onlookers with a glimpse of what was inside the tent gave me a pretty good idea of what the men got to see. Rumors spread among boys of my age – not yet teenagers, but close – that even more went on, and was taken off, once the Midway closed down and the families went home. A couple of friends claimed to have snuck back and peeked under the canvas, but I never believed them.
What really enthralled me was what went on under the Big Top. Sure it was less than the show that Beatty had put on, sometimes two rings instead of three, but in the small town South, a place populated by folks who were little removed from the farm, the circus possessed a grandeur unlike anything we had ever seen or, in many cases, hoped to.
We gasped as costumed acrobats flew from trapeze to trapeze, almost falling, then recovering to the cheers of the audience. We saw a man shot out of a cannon. We saw a woman spinning as she held on by her teeth.
And twenty clowns got out of one car.
It was the Greatest Show On Earth.
Now it’s gone.
Mostly. A few small shows still travel about. The big ones, however, well they gave up their tents for municipal auditoriums and domed stadiums, but even those venues weren’t enough to keep them going.
Some blame animal rights activists for bringing it all down. Having been disturbed, a little short of traumatized, by the way Disney let them treat Dumbo’s mother, I can see their point. None of the animals in those traveling shows seemed particularly happy. Other, blame the fact that there is so much alternative entertainment that circuses just could not compete.
Whatever the cause, here is the consequence.
Across this great land of ours many small towns have flourished. They have become suburbs to suburbs, bucolic places where during the week escapees from urban life drive to work in nearby cities, and on weekends congregate to drink designer coffee and consider how nice it is to live in such a wonderful place.
Other small towns have not done so well. They have lost population to the cities, lost business to the Super Walmart down the road, and signs of decline are everywhere.
However, the two have this in common.
Circuses don’t stop there anymore.
It’s a pity.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Taking down the Big Top