Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tonight under the Big Top...

I'm just old enough to remember when the circus rolled into town and put up a huge striped tent in an open field or in the case of my hometown, the Sam Boyd Stadium. Now when the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus hits Sin City they perform in the college campus basketball arena. Also they compete heavily with the Cirque du Soliel crowd. (You know those wacky French Canadians with a show in almost every casino that leaves the audience goers equal parts confused and amazed.)

But what of the Circus? The real circus. The one with Elephants named Bertha and Bettina. Ones with six hundred clowns shoved in the back of VW Bug. The circus that smelled of sawdust and popcorn and peanuts. A place where women in glittery costumes flew high above the crowd with the greatest of ease. (They still do that here in Vegas..but we call them Drag Queens) What about lions and tigers and bears? Oh, my! The circus is not a solely American institution but two of the most famous circuses (kind feels like that word should be circi) of all time traveled the country in America's past, and still do. 

P.T. Barnum was a showman of the highest degree. He could sell you beachfront property in Arizona and you would be grinning like a monkey as you handed over the cash. There is debate as to whether he actually said "There's a sucker born every minute." But the phrase really sounds like Senor Flim-flam. Prior to starting Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum Menagerie, Caravan and Circus in 1872 (Try saying the five times fast...go ahead, give it a try. I'll wait...) Barnum had established himself as a purveyor of freaks. Barnum collected oddities like "The Feejee Mermaid" (supposedly the jar held the mummified remains of a mermaid), befriended overly hairy women (bearded ladies), and guys who liked to bite the heads off of chickens (The original geek. Seriously, the word Geek used to mean this, not just computer guys who haven't seen a naked girl in a decade.) Barnum started the Barnum's Grand TMMCC (I'm writing it this way because frankly that is a long damn title to have to type fifty times.) because he felt American audiences needed a really big show. In fact, he felt that the people needed "The Greatest Show on Earth."

The circus was the main form of entertainment for many Americans at the turn of the century. With over 100 circuses, big and small, traveling the country by train and cavern, a good show was never too far away. There were six men, including Barnum, who helped shape the modern circus. Phillip Astley, the father of the modern circus; John Bill Ricketts,  the founder of the first American circus; Pepin and Breschard, who took the circus out West, Barnum, who brought the sideshow into the spotlight; Adam Forepaugh, who brought the Wild West under the big top; and the Ringling Brothers., the undisputed kings of the Greatest Show on Earth.

In 1888, P.T. Barnum joined forces with Bailey to from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. They traveled the rails with such attractions as Jumbo, a huge African Elephant and an impressive sideshow. While B&B worked the crowds, The Ringling Brothers were making a name for themselves as well with their tented circuses. The official title was Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of trained animals. (Simplicity was not these boys strong suit when it came to naming.)

In 1907 Ringling Brothers purchased their largest competitor. You got it, good old Barnum and Bailey’s. Out of respect the two shows were toured separately until 1917 when because of war time shortages, they were combined into one show. They would travel the United States for another forty years or so.

By the late fifties times and preferences had changed. Hollywood had captured the country’s imaginations with film and television. The circus was in trouble. The financially strapped Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus performed its final show under the Big Top on July 16, 1956.

This however was not the end of the American Circus. In 1967, Irving Feld purchased the crumbling business and rebuilt. To this day Feld Entertainment tours the circus around the United States. But it’s not the same. It may still be the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus but without the sawdust and the red and white striped big top is it really the Greatest Show on Earth?

I miss Lydia the tattooed lady.

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