While there will be plenty of hot dogs, hamburgers and fireworks served up next week as the United States celebrates its 241st birthday, the prospect of a circus coming to town as part of summer’s hoopla is fading.
The leading reason can be found in the recent closing of the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
While there are still dozens of smaller circuses traveling the nation, one can sense an industry death knell in the late May demise of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
A Long Time Coming?
In his report on the final act, Time magazine’s David Von Drehle noted that the company put much of the blame on the recent decision to stop using elephants as performers.
Indeed, a release earlier this year from the owners, Field Entertainment, said the decision to end the circus tours was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales.
“Following the transition of the elephants off the circus, the company saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated,” Field said, saying that made the business unsustainable.
However, Von Drehle wrote, the end of the circus’ 146-year run started decades ago.
“The Greatest Show on Earth has been headed for this day since the 1950s,” he said. “(That’s) when the same force that killed vaudeville—television—drove the storied operation out of its vast canvas big tops and into ho-hum auditoriums and arenas.”
The demise of the circus may be overstated, as noted in a 2014 Huffington Post article. It pointed out that, at that time, France had 450 troupes and more than 600 schools for training in circus-related disciplines.
Indeed, the Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil, whose multiple Las Vegas acts play to more than 9,000 people a night, show that the circus is not dead but evolving.
Yet for me, the transition to arenas, auditoriums, and glitzy palaces belies fond memories.
They include the canvas tents and big top that were part of the traveling circus I joined for a brief excursion as a roustabout before my senior year of college.
It sounded like a good idea, a way to earn some extra spending money and enjoy the romantic life of a circus hand.
Trouble is, two friends and I quickly discovered reality was anything but dazzling. It was a lot of back-breaking, mind-numbing work. One buddy departed after one week, arising at sunrise to hitchhike home.
The other friend and I stayed on. A week later, a torrential downpour hit western Pennsylvania and nearly flooded us out of business. I still remember the roustabout who waded in water up to his chest to untie the final rope.
The waters receded the next day, but my other friend and I quickly decided it was time to head for home too.
Ironically, a couple years later, after I had moved to western Florida, I picked up a young guy hitchhiking one evening.
He, too, was running away from circus life. He, too, talked of the back-breaking, low-paid labor that quickly had him thinking, “There has to be a better way to make some money.”
Despite such experiences, I retain fond memories of the circus.
The big top as I knew it has gone the way of dial-up modems and fax machines, drowned in a blizzard of smart phones, online connections, and entertainment options thousands of times greater than my childhood years.
Yet few gadgets can equal the opening call of the ringmaster as he boomed, “Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages…” Makes me wish I could go one more time.