Friday, April 20, 2018
Human Interest

Closing of Ringling Bros. circus brings back 146 years of memories


You've heard, of course. The curtain has come down on The Greatest Show on Earth. Barring unexpected salvation, Sunday's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show will be the last here. In May, after 146 years, it all comes to a stop.

The news has given way to nostalgia.

"I was 6 months old my first time," said Richard Knight Sr., 35, sitting outside Amalie Arena earlier this week, waiting on the show. "I've seen the pictures, me smiling. Dad was rarely around. My mom always told me, 'You were happiest at the circus.' "

Let us reflect ringside, then, on this vestige of Americana. On its roots.

See the Ringling boys of McGregor, Iowa, walking through the predawn dark one spring morning to the landing on the Mississippi River and setting eyes on a circus boat carrying Dan Rice's Brilliant Combination of Arenic Attractions.

"The old river calliope made music that was sweet," Alf T. Ringling wrote of that morning. "All its sharpness and its terror were mellowed as it passed over the water, and by the time it reached the shore it was as soft and soothing as a cradle song."

The brothers talked for the first time about starting a circus on their walk back home for breakfast.

Their first, in 1870, was held in a tent made from canvas, carpet scraps and moth-eaten Army blankets, and admission was a penny. A series of performances netted them $8.37. So they upped the game the following summer with instruments, a battle-scarred goat known locally as Billy Rainbow, and a larger tent, its entrance adorned with a sign:


Admission 5 cents

The circus developed and acquired and grew to fill four trains with men and animals and equipment, crisscrossing the country for the next century, plopping big tops in towns large and small, pulling people in with parades and pomp.

Maybe that was you, caught forever in a black-and-white photograph atop your father's shoulders, the smell of his Vitalis hair tonic in your nose. It seemed like such a long way down.

Maybe you stepped right up and parted with your dollars for admission and again for cotton candy and again for a souvenir photograph in a souvenir frame, all in hopes of remembering, or imparting memories to offspring, something no one can take away.

And how you remember.

Donna Theroux is 42 now, but when she was 12 or 13, she and her brother worked together at the kitchen table in Providence, R.I., and polished off a fine poster board coloring of a man and a tiger and sent it to Ringling and won free tickets. It was her first time seeing an elephant. She came back Wednesday, three decades later, with her daughter, 18-year-old Rebecca, for one last show.

Connie Foster, 76, was 8 her first time. The lady who lived downstairs happened to clean Boston Garden, and happened to get a couple of tickets. Foster was mesmerized by the flying trapeze swinging between heaven and earth. "This will be my last chance to see it," said Foster, who now lives in Tampa. She had come Wednesday to save the circus with a plan, one involving cruise ships, but struggled to find an audience.

Richard Knight Sr. knew a kid from the neighborhood who worked for the circus and got him in free to see the show at Fireman's Field on Long Island. He drove Wednesday from New Port Richey with his son, Richard Jr., 7. "This will be his first and last time," the dad said.

For 146 years, we measured time by the circus, in town once a year, even as the sound of the train whistle gave way to placards and placards to newspaper advertising and newspaper advertising to social media hashtags.

We were the suckers born every minute. (Or were we? Robert E. Sherwood, a friend of P.T. Barnum who was known in 1925 as "The Oldest Clown in America," told the National Democratic Club that Barnum actually said "the American public like to be humbugged," and there is a difference.)

In the early days, when everything seemed to happen in crowds, we stood in line to be duped.

In 1900, 75 million people occupied 45 states, and the country had just 150 miles of paved roads. We needed entertainment to come to us. The mode of delivery changed, of course; slowly at first.

In 1950, less than 10 percent of American households had a television set.

"The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money," Ernest Hemingway wrote in an essay for the Ringling Bros. in 1953. "It is the only spectacle I know, that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream."

But by the end of the decade, more than 80 percent of Americans had TVs.

The Ringlings struggled hard in the 1950s (the financials showed 1948 to be the last good year), and eventually sold to the Feld family in the 1960s. There were always challenges, from the Hartford tent fire that killed more than 160 people to labor unions to animal rights activists. The circus kept coming, though, as the city skylines got taller and the suburbs swelled, and the kids got pale and got good at video games.

Through it all, the circus presented to the public a smiling face, but it had a certain darkness, just outside the edge of the hot lights. It wasn't always comfortable, and maybe you remember that, too. The awkward sheepishness of the big cats skulking away from whip cracks. The unnatural timidity of intelligent elephants. That time the acrobat broke loose from her tether in front of a crowd and her X-ray looked like a crumbled road map.

"There is a harsh underworld character to life behind the canvas partitions," Henry Ringling North wrote in his book The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story. "It is a world of sudden death and slow disintegration; of rackets and outright crookedness; of tawdry passions and bright knives gleaming in flash fights; of hidden brutality toward dumb animals and callous treatment of human beings."

But center ring presented mostly virtue. The circus puzzled and inspired for nearly a century and a half. And will for a few more nights.

Matthew Lish, 19, who put an engineering degree at Hofstra on hold to be a clown with the circus this season, said an elderly man approached after a recent performance.

"He was very choked up," Lish said, "and he said, 'I just wanted to tell you that I saw the circus in 1938.' "

Lish understood. The circus at its best is a dichotomy: You lose track of time and remember every second.

"There are moments during the show where you'll get to see for just a fraction of a second someone smile, or a kid with his arms up in the air, or a look of amazement on his face," he said. "There's nothing like it."

Nothing, he said, on earth.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 310-6066. Follow @gangrey.

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