The first time at the circus

Published 6:38 am Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Despite everything you have seen on television in the past few weeks, I am not talking about politics. I am talking about the “Greatest Show on Earth” — the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Part of our family Christmas gift was front-row seats for Henry and Laura, along with their parents, when the big circus arrived in Tallahassee this past weekend. It was their first visit to a circus and the anticipation was great, especially by the grandparents.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my, we taunted them on the trip down. Ironically, there were none of the above, illustrating how much circuses have changed since my own boyhood.

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I can still remember the smell of all the sawdust under the big tent. Sometimes I was lucky enough to see the big elephants working to pull the poles and tent up. Everything was done by hand with the help of the animals.

The tickets were sold in small stands leading up to the entrance of the tent. Peanuts and popcorn were the main treats along with an occasional cotton candy. The main forms of advertising were color posters that were plastered on everything from telephone poles to the windows of vacant buildings.

If you were lucky enough to see a really big circus, the tent was large enough to have three rings or centers of activity. When one act finished in one ring, another would start in the second, allowing the audience to be constantly entertained.

As famous as Ringling Brothers Circus has been, it did not invent the circus. The origin of a traveling show with trained animals, acrobats and clowns is believed to have originated in ancient Rome.

Circuses may have been kept alive for the modern world by gypsies, who traveled around Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, showing various acrobatic skills and trained animals.

While the modern American circus had many names associated with it during the early days, it was P.T. Barnum that brought respectability and showmanship to the circus. He initially incorporated freak shows and sideshows into his programs.

After failing in several businesses and endeavors, Barnum became a showman. His first act was an old black woman that was blind and nearly paralyzed. He marketed her as the 160-year-old nurse of George Washington.

Other early acts included “General Tom Thumb,” a midget, and the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker.

Five siblings, the Ringling Brothers, founded their circus while Barnum & Bailey were at their peak. They traveled from town to town in small caravans led by the circus animals. The more dangerous animals, such as the tigers, were in rolling cages for all to see as they entered town.

Eventually, the Ringling Brothers’ show became so large they had to travel by train. They reached their peak following World War I but remained an important part of American entertainment for several decades. Motion pictures competed for the entertainment dollar and eventually caused crowds to decrease.

However, circuses remained enough of the American landscape that President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted a special permit for circuses to travel by rail during World War II. By the mid-1950s, larger circuses were largely performing in arenas rather than tents.

So it is that my grandchildren, like my own children, saw their first circus inside a building, not a tent. The Civic Center in Tallahassee is certainly large enough to house a circus, although it was a one-ring affair. The orchestra was probably larger than in the old days and the special effects were probably not even around a few decades ago.

The horses were first, followed by the camels. Although there were no tigers or lions, the trained dogs entertained everyone with their fast-paced tricks. The elephants were massive and did their tricks slower than the dogs, but they were no less impressive.

The acrobats were amazing, flying through the air, doing all sorts of tricks that defied your imagination. Motorcycles speeding through a small cage, a strong man lifting 14 people, and the animals, always the animals, doing amazing feats and leaving everyone in awe.

It was topped off by giant bags of popcorn that insured my grandchildren were having a great time. Their eyes were as big as the elephants and they squealed with delight at all the right times.

The perfect afternoon was topped off by a visit to the ice-cream parlor insuring that they had a week’s worth of sugar when we dropped them off at their home.

I remember the excitement and wonder of my own first trip to the circus, but it pales in comparison to the first visit with my grandchildren.

Dan Ponder can be reached at