For the first time in 146 years, there are no Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performances scheduled, and the world is a poorer place for it. The Greatest Show on Earth is no more. Your great-great grandparents may have had a date at a show. It is now certain that your great-great grandchildren will not.
Before we continue, a word about the animals…If you believe they were mistreated or abused, stop reading. This is not for you. All I can tell you is that I was there. I lived and worked with these animals 24/7, and if you believe they were abused, then you were NOT there. Elephants, for example, do not breed unless their social and biological needs are met. RBBB had the single most successful breeding program in the Western Hemisphere. The proof is in the pudding.
Still here? Great. In the 1800’s PT Barnum created the circus spectacle. Three rings, two stages, more than the eye could take in during a single performance. Family entertainment for children of all ages on a scale never before seen. Barnum partnered with the greatest circus showman of that era, James Bailey, to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Ringling Bros. bought the show and combined it with their own. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was born.
At that time, RBBB was a tent show. The Big Top seated from 5,000 to 9,000 people over the years. The 100-car train carried 1,200 employees and nearly as many animals. It was a city on wheels which moved the circus across the USA on a perpetual tour of one-night-stands. Each night, the circus would pack itself up, load itself out, head to the next stand, and do it all over again. So impressive was this feat, the US Army brought RBBB in to consult on logistics regarding moving people and materials in order to better fight WWI.
Moving the show into arenas and out of the tent in 1956, RBBB was still a juggernaut with a train a mile long. As new arenas were built across the country, Ringling rolled out to meet them. When the Astrodome was built in Houston, RBBB rolled in and sold it out. 67,000 seats. A record for the Astrodome and Ringling.
Those are the basic facts.
Now for the truth. Ringling was more than a show. It was a culture with it’s own language, traditions, and peculiar form of justice. Some people stayed; Lou Jacobs was a Ringling clown for 66 years. Some people left after one season. All are part of a family that made up the longest continually-running theatrical production in modern history.
All are world-class athletes who pushed the very boundaries of human ability, 13 times per week. In the final performance, trapeze artist Ammed Garcia Tuniziani twice attempted a quadruple somersault…a feat so difficult only a handful of performers have sporadically succeeded over the past 30 years. Ammed failed, but it didn’t matter. The RBBB audience was thrilled by the attempts.
Ringling was a truly great spectacle. 24 elephants. 14 tigers. 18 horses. Llamas, dogs, chimps, a giraffe, a famous gorilla, bears, and at least one disgruntled bison all were featured under the Ringling banner.
Human acts included teeterboard artists from Soviet-bloc countries who performed double backward somersaults to a five-man-high pyramid, a man in tails and top hat who balanced 30 feet in the air on one finger, human cannonballs, contortionists, BMX riders, unicycle riders, wire walkers, and 24 clowns per show…all these and more put their lives on the line daily in order to spread joy and wonder.
As joyful and wondrous as it is, the circus is a cruel mistress who kills it’s brightest stars. Two members of the Wallenda wire walking family were killed in a fall in 1962. Lillian Leitzel was world-famous in 1932 for an act in which she would climb a rope, grasp it with one hand, and repeatedly flip her body over her shoulder. During a performance in Copenhagen, she fell 40 feet and died a few days later. Dessi Espana died in 2004 when a piece of aerial equipment failed and sent her plunging 30 feet down to the arena floor. Two Ringling performers, Ceslee Conkling, a clown, and Ted Svertesky, an elephant trainer, were killed in a circus train crash in 1994. Ringling Bros. performers accepted the possibility of being killed as the price of admission to being a member of the Greatest Show on Earth family.
Circus life was never easy. Performers and crew lived in rooms on the mile-long train mentioned earlier. Each room was 6X3X7.5, and was built out of 3/4 inch plywood. (Funfact: According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to TWICE as much living space.) While each car had sinks and commodes, the only showers were to be had inside the arena locker rooms. Sit down baths? Not an option unless someone rented a hotel room. Everyone traveled from the railroad yard where the train was parked to the arena and back aboard the RBBB bus, which cost 25 cents to ride each way.
As in any community, love was fallen into–and went unrequited, weddings were celebrated, babies were born, breakups and divorces were mourned. Life was lived by the clock of show schedules, and centered around the three sacred performance rings.
A word about rings…As many circus-type acts as a theatrical show may have, it’s not an actual CIRCUS unless it has at least one ring. It’s the ring which defines circus, circumscribing life and death within its 42 feet diameter. Why 42 feet? That’s the ideal diameter for a galloping horse. The RBBB rings are where Mass was held on Sunday morning, and where lives were risked on Sunday afternoon.
Today, the rings have been disassembled and sold to the highest bidder The train has been sold off car by car. Pie-Car Jr, the RBBB food truck which parked out back of the arena and sold food to performers “at cost,” (lol) is probably headed to a carnival where it will feed fairground workers. Guy lines will be cut into one-inch sections and sold as a remembrance of the show. The elephants are headed to a 700 acre facility in North Florida, and the performers are headed for home, the open road, other shows, or oblivion.
Our city has been dismantled and dissolved. Forever. I’m sad that you’ll never be able to visit us, again. I’m sad that a chain of performances stretching back 146 years is now broken. Most of all, I’m sad for the children who will never see 24 elephants on parade, 20 clowns piling out of an impossibly tiny car, and hear a Ringmaster cry, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of ALLLLL ages! The producers are proud to present…..RINGLING BROS AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS! THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!”
In the Broadway musical BARNUM, PT Barnum sings about a bleak and dreary world saying, “Someone’s got to make it bright. Shoot a rocket! Shine a light! Tell ya who that someone’s gonna be….”
Until today, we KNEW who that someone was gonna be.
No idea, but I can’t wait to find out!!!!
See you down the road.