The Greatest Show on Earth

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Given the timing of this article and all the hype surrounding the inauguration of Donald Trump as President this week, one might assume that the title is referring to Friday’s swearing in of our nation’s 45th President.   However, another event made the news this week and immediately brought nostalgic memories to generations of Americans.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus has traveled extensively and entertained countless crowds for the past 146 years.   The earliest performances of the circus came only six years after the end of the Civil War and the nation was hungry for distractions and entertainment.    

The circus announced they will be closing the doors later this year as a result of declining ticket sales, increased costs and unrelenting pressure about the use of captive animals in their shows.  More than anything else, it is another example of our changing world.

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I can still remember the first circus I attended as a kid.  It was a small traveling circus making the rounds in little towns in the South.   Though nowhere as large as the Ringling Brothers production, it seemed magical and larger than life to me. 

There was sawdust on the floor.  We ate peanuts and drank Coca-Cola as the animals amazed us with the tricks and feats.  The trapeze artists seems to fly through the air effortlessly, bringing gasps from the crowds as they performed increasingly difficult maneuvers.   It was the first time I saw a true juggler.

It you were lucky, you could watch the elephants use their brute power to help put the tents up in a field outside of town.   In earlier years, there would have been a parade through town showcasing the lions and tigers and bears, not to mention the kangaroos and camels, along with the performers from around the world.

At the turn of the last century, through World War II, there was no spectacle that captured the wild eyed imagination of children more than visiting the circus.  It was a glimpse into a world that only existed in books and fairy tales.   

Gradually, circuses moved from the Big Tents into indoor arenas.  They still traveled largely by train, often with as many as 60 boxcars loaded with equipment, animals and props.  The largest circuses even had schools for the children of the performers traveling with the circus around the country.

As with so many other things we fondly remember from our childhood, times change.   The public has more and more alternatives for their entertainment dollars.  Television programs have even more exotic animals than the circus.  The surge in popularity of electronic devices to entertain our kids in the past twenty years make the circus seem more quaint and out of date.

I will always be happy that Mary Lou and I had the opportunity to take our grandchildren to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus a couple of years ago when they were in Tallahassee.   It was special to see their eyes wide with wonder, just the way I expect my eyes looked some 50 plus years ago when I first saw the elephants perform.

However, I was also struck by the commercialization of the circus, with merchandise, snacks and treats offered at terribly inflated prices that took me a bit off guard.   The path had already been set for the eventual demise of the circus.   Circuses were increasingly expensive to operate, faced continued lawsuits and pressure over the confinement of the animals, and was confronted with declining interest from a public with many other opportunities for spending their time and money.

Finally, the circus pulled the elephants from the show a couple of years ago.  It was all over, they just didn’t know it.  Attendance declined dramatically until closing the circus was really the only option. 

The world is changing.   Many activists don’t like any animal in captivity.  While I understand their concern, I hate to think of a world where a child cannot see an exotic animal in a controlled, ethical setting like a zoo.

For me, in a slower and simpler time, this was the Greatest Show on Earth.  Nothing else was even close.    

I guess I will just have to be content to watch the only real remaining circus around, namely the politicians in Washington.  Somehow, it just isn’t the same.