At the Circus

Dean and I were eleven years old that long-ago Saturday. (Or, as I would have written that sentence back then,“ Me and Dean…”) We walked out of the movie theatre matinee that day knowing exactly what we were going to do: Run away and join the circus.

We were always heavily influenced by the movies we had just seen. Every time we saw a John Wayne western, we wanted to be cowboys and walk funny. We saw Ben Hur and decided to become chariot drivers. After watching Robin Hood we both signed up for archery lessons—planning to spend the rest of our days out in the woods with other guys eating berries and squirrels.

Fortunately, we never attended The Boston Strangler.

But it made sense that Dean and I wanted circus careers after seeing a movie called Toby Tyler. In that Disney film, young Toby decides he’ll escape a tough home life by sneaking off with a traveling circus. We didn’t notice that the movie was set in the 1880’s—nor did it matter that our own home lives were just dandy. We were joining the circus—and that was that.

Until the following week when The Blob came to town. Then, locking ourselves in our bedrooms seemed like a better idea.

I thought about the circus road not taken last week when I heard the news—as you likely did—that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus is folding their big top for good after 146 years in business. In one fell swoop, hundreds of chair balancers, plate spinners, stilt-walkers and strongmen are going to join the ranks of the unemployed.

That means dozens of bearded ladies, fire-eaters, snake charmers and sword swallowers may become Amazon workers—where luckily they will fit right in.

Of course, it wasn’t the human performers that turned the circus into an anachronism—it was the animals. Animal rights groups put a sharp focus on the treatment of elephants, lions and the rest—increasingly forcing circuses to no longer feature such acts. (“People for the Unethical Treatment of Insects” forced the closure of most flea circuses as well.)

The fact is that aerialists, jugglers and clowns all volunteer to be in the circus. The animals have no vote. So finally it came to be viewed as inappropriate to force elephants to stand and balance themselves on giant balls—something they rarely do in the wild.

Still, the passing of the circus—or at least the biggest one—has to be met with some wistfulness. After all, for as long as any of us can remember, the circus has always come to town—bringing with it spectacle, magic and lots of funky smells.

I count no fewer than 50 movies about circuses. There was The Greatest Show on Earth which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1952. It hasn’t held up well—and at 152 minutes, it is The Greatest Snore on Earth.
Besides Toby Tyler my other favorite is 1960’s Circus of Horrors. The story revolves around a plastic surgeon who puts together a circus filled with female criminals he has operated on. Inexplicably, the film did not win the Oscar—perhaps because of the pressure exerted by the powerful ‘botched plastic surgeries on female criminals’ lobby.

I heard a guy in a coffee shop yesterday say, “How ironic is it that the same week the Ringling Brothers circus is closing—a new one has come to Washington, D.C.?” That’s harsh.

Some people have even compared the newest resident of the White House to P.T. Barnum. He was the guy who started the circus that bears his name—and is famously quoted as having said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Except that Barnum never said it. What he did say was, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” That’s probably why Barnum’s circuses—with their glass eaters, obnoxious clowns and two-headed human acts—were such a hit.

And perhaps if Barnum was alive today, his new enterprise might well be reality TV. That’s a great place to gauge the public’s taste. (However, if Barnum was alive today he’d be well over 200 years old and badly in need of a moisturizer.)

Still, a 146 year run is pretty good—and while Ringling, etc. is going the way of dial-up internet, Fotomats and Liquid Paper—there will still always be a place for a first-rate human cannonball.

After all, you can never be fired.

Except during each performance.