The Circus Is Coming!!!
You wake up one summerlike morning, and things are as they ought to be.
The hazy sun comes up like a voyeur over the tops of the city’s buildings, peeking timidly into your bedroom to catch you unawares.
On the streets, dainty starlings and sparrows pick for seeds in the droppings of the milkman’s horse.
From the river, a gentle wind transports the pungent odors of the big Gulf and Sunoco refineries and lays them low upon the streets and back alleys of the city.
A huckster’s raucous cry wafts in from Tasker Street, a block away. Freestone peaches, three pounds a quarter! Apples here; I got apples!
A cop strolls past the wagon, stick in hand, and takes a peach from its colorfully-stickered wooden crate. The huckster gestures with a generous sweep of his hand; the cop smiles and walks on, savoring his little piece of Nature’s bounty.
All’s right with the world.
FROM DOWN THE street comes a strange new sound. A staccato tap-tap-tap arouses your interest, and you go up to the front window to look.
Two men stride away from a wooden telephone pole, leaving behind a poster they have nailed up. They stop at the candy store across the street, and within moments a similar poster finds room in the display window among the kazoos, nickel rockets, Red Ryder cap pistols, Duncan yo-yos, and Green Hornet comic books.
Curiosity gets the better of you. You pull on your black high-top Keds (no socks) and head out to see what’s going on.
THE GRAY-WHITE poster is covered with splashes of eye-catching color. As you come nearer, you can make out the pictures – of lions, of tigers, of elephants and clowns.
It can mean only one thing.
The circus is coming.
The incessant tap-tap-tap continues, and before long the posters bloom all over the city.
The circus is coming.
Wherever you turn, you see the signs. Pictures of a high-hat ringmaster, of a stunningly beautiful young aerialist in flight, of an elephant balancing precariously on one leg.
The circus is coming!
Kids rush to pass the news. They run to their rooms and haul out the caches of treasure from their secret hiding places. Count up the nickels and the pennies. Will there be enough for a ticket?
Planning and plotting get under way. Means must be found to drop appropriate hints to fathers and mothers who, if all goes well, will make up the monetary shortfalls.
THE BIG DAY arrives, and the kids gather in the early morning hours near the railroad tracks to watch as the circus train rolls by. A distant whistle tells them that something special is about to happen.
Within minutes, a black Pennsy road switcher appears, puffing clouds of dusty smoke from its stack and chuffing wisps of steam from its cylinders.
Behind the tender is a long train of white cars, groaning and screeching as their couplers strain to grip one another.
Each car bears the scarlet inscription: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.
Beneath the garish writing, in big red block letters, a mere touch of hyperbole: The Greatest Show On Earth.
DOWN NEAR THE Navy Yard, the circus train disgorges its cargo. Like a well-oiled machine, men and animals begin moving in purposeful strokes. Nobody says “take five;” the labor starts almost before the train’s wheels have stopped.
From the flatcars come the pieces of canvas and wire that will soon soar over thousands of spectators and performers. Sections of support poles, each as thick as a man’s waist, are pushed onto the ground and rolled into place for assembly.
Gangs of roustabouts, gathered for the day by advance recruiters, stand ready to man the wooden mallets and haul on the heavy manila ropes.
Other advance men have already spotted the critical sites for the fat wooden stakes, which are quickly unloaded and carried to their marked destinations.
Laborers begin pounding with the great mallets, driving the stakes deep into the soil. The big pegs will hold the ropes that in turn will tie support poles and a vast sheet of canvas to the ground.
TEAMS OF RIGGERS dash about in a precise dance. They’ve done this before.
And here come the elephants. Placed strategically around the poles and harnessed to the ropes, the animals begin a steady coordinated pull that lifts the ends of the massive poles off the ground. Riggers take up and play out slack, using the stakes as capstans.
In almost less time than it takes to tell, the huge poles are upright and secured to the stakes. Roustabouts roll the canvas out to the poles and attach it to steel hoops that ring the supports.
Pulleys scream from the weight of the canvas. Higher and higher the hoops rise, toward the tops of the support masts.
And suddenly, as if by the hand of some master magician, the piles of canvas and ropes and stakes have combined to take a special new shape.
The Big Top is ready.
IN ITS HEYDAY, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey was the boss of the circus world.
As it does today, the circus fielded two separate shows. Both the Blue and the Red shows had their own trains on which they traversed the United States.
It took 300 tents to house the circus, its sideshows, and its concessions. Ringling Brothers even carried its own diesel generators to run an electrical power plant. The circus was a self-contained city.
Its performers were world-class, even the clowns. Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly were household names.
Unus held the vast crowds spellbound as he balanced atop a flimsy staff – on one finger.
The Flying Wallendas mastered daring feats on the high wire that made spectators turn away, afraid to watch.
Ladies and gentlemen! And children of all ages!
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey proudly present…
The 61st edition of…
The Greatest Show on Earth!
But a month later at Hartford, Connecticut, a terrible event marked the beginning of the end for the giant tent circuses of the seven Ringling Brothers.
On the sixth day of July 1944, the Big Top caught fire. Flaming canvas fell atop the terrified crowds, and 168 people were dead.
Things were never the same after that.
The circus recovered for a time. New materials made the canvas fire-retardant, and later the cloth was replaced with fireproof nylon. The danger was gone, and gradually the public regained confidence in the tent shows. They came back.
Labor and travel costs rose, though, and so did competition from a new and formidable entertainment medium. Television had arrived, enticing circus lovers away from their once-treasured Big Top.
Within twelve years of the great Hartford disaster, John Ringling North announced the end of an era. His circus would no longer use the tents.
His traveling shows would go indoors. Soft padded seats instead of hard wood and steel bleachers. Air-conditioned comfort instead of the hot, sweaty, smelly atmosphere of the Big Top.
Civilization had come to the circus. Its outrageous yet lovely rough edges had been worn smooth by the pressures of modern life.
But something was missing. Take away its awesome setting, and the Ringling Brothers Circus was little more than a wide-screen TV show.
THE BIG TENT circuses are almost gone now. Only eight remain in the United States. A generation ago there were twenty-five. A century ago there were hundreds.
Of those, just a few will survive the next ten years – and perhaps none will be around for our grandchildren to see.
Those eight tented spectacles wander the American and Canadian countryside, putting on their two-a-day performances for crowds that number not in the thousands, but in the hundreds. For nine or ten months of the year they dash from town to town, sponsored by a volunteer fire company here, an understaffed police department there. They split the gate, providing local organizations with much-needed funds.
It’s a vicious grind. Set up the tents and the concessions this morning, play a matinee and an evening show, then knock it all down and load up for the next day’s shows in another small burg. On and on, day after day, no days off, no holidays. You wonder why they do it.
No matter. When they show up in your town, just be there. No, they’re not the Big Show. The acts will be second-rate, at best. But it’s Circus, by God, and it’s rapidly disappearing from the American scene.
Be there. Be there when the clowns prance, when the man rolls by on the unicycle, when the elephant lifts the beautiful woman in its trunk.
Watch as the amazing aerialists defy death on the high wire. Gasp along with the rest of us as the trapeze artists fling themselves aloft with no apparent concern for little things like gravity.
LET THE CIRCUS into your heart once again. Let your blood race with the ancient spectacle that will unfold before you. Let your mind slip into those wonder-filled days of the long-gone past – while there’s yet the chance.
Do it while there’s still a circus left to see. Next year, even next month, may be too late.
And whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity to let your kids hear and see and smell the real circus. It will be an experience they may never have again.
And you don’t even need a kid as your excuse to go there yourself.
Join that crowd of “children of all ages.” You’ll not regret it.