Four years ago, the city of Los Angeles banned the use of bullhooks, a tool that circuses use to train and control elephants, which meant that Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circuses no longer felt they could bring elephants to the city. Soon the state of California followed suit, which prompted a spokesman for the circus to note that the circus was not the circus without elephants. His concern was not without merit.
Ringling Bros. shouldered on for another couple of years without elephants, but the company recently announced that it would shut down in May. It did note a significant drop-off in attendance once elephants were no longer a part of “the greatest show on earth.”
However, it would be too facile an explanation simply to blame animal activists and the disappearance of elephants for the demise of Ringling Bros, which was founded in 1871. The truth is the handwriting had been on the wall for the circus for many years. Television, changing tastes, shortened attention spans both of parents and children, theme parks, and finally the Internet meant the circus was living on borrowed time.
It is difficult for people today to understand what the circus once meant to America. In rural areas, when the whistle of the circus train sounded in the distance, everything closed down in the early and mid 20th Century. Schools closed and businesses shuttered for the day when the circus came to town. Even in big cities like Chicago traffic was rerouted for the circus entourage (for many years Ogden Avenue was closed as the circus made its way to the Chicago Stadium, at the site of today’s United Center). For decades, a trip to the circus was an event where family generations bonded; it was the epitome of family entertainment and part of the lifeblood of the country.
As evidence of this, the circus featured prominently in motion pictures including well-known films that starred Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, Lon Chaney, and most notably Dumbo. The most famous circus film, the 1952 “The Greatest Show On Earth” featuring actual circus performers, was directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille and starred among others, Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture over “High Noon”. It was the first movie a young Steven Spielberg ever saw and was the inspiration for him to become a film director. Chicagoans of a certain age will appreciate that the movie’s theme music was later adopted as the intro theme for the iconic WGN children’s show Bozo’s Circus.
But the 1940’s and 1950’s were probably the high point of circuses in America. The advent of television meant that families could see circus acts in their living rooms for free. Soon Walt Disney opened Disneyland, and then Disneyworld, which spawned other theme parks across the country. A more mobile America and greater competition for the family entertainment dollar meant that money once spent on an annual visit to the circus might be spent in Anaheim, Orlando or elsewhere.
Then came a new millennium and with it, computers, video games, and I Phones. Parents no longer looked forward to a leisurely all-day trip to the circus, and younger children, used to nonstop action, lacked the patience to sit through an animal act that might take a half-hour. The opprobrium directed at such acts by animal activists is well documented, and just as crucial to the downfall of Ringling Bros was the public view of clowns another long-time staple of the circus. The clown was once regarded as a comic figure or the embodiment of pathos - think Pagliacci or Emmett Kelly. Now when clowns are mentioned, for many the word that comes to mind is “creepy”. Who wants to take young children to see creepy characters?
What has gone unmentioned is the ineffable bond between circus performers. They are and have always been a close-knit family, and the end of Ringling Bros. is especially tragic for them. Consider that there are several cemeteries across the country, which have special sections reserved for circus performers. Only those connected in some way with the circus can be buried in those “Showmen’s Rests”; even spouses and relatives are excluded. The Showmen’s Rest at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park was created after scores of circus people were killed in a train accident outside Hammond in 1918. (Ironically, the plots are surrounded by several statues of elephants, their trunks lowered in mourning.) Outside of perhaps the military, what other profession takes such pains to honor its dead?
The end of Ringling Bros does not mean the end of the circus in America. Cirque de Soleil, the Canadian circus troupe that does not employ animals is thriving, especially in Las Vegas. But Cirque de Soleil is something different, a glitzy international creature of the 21st Century. The glamor of Ringling Bros was of an earlier time and age, a throwback to what grandparents, parents, and children shared in 20th Century America. Its passing says as much about us as it does about the circus.
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