- By Dan Veaner
The Earth ended Sunday. Children of all ages packed the venue in in Uniondale, NY for the final performance of the Greatest Show On Earth, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®. In the 50 years since Feld Entertainment acquired the circus there have been 275,000,000 audience members at 48,000 performances in 284 cities. But that was only a bit over a third of the circus's 146 year history, when Charles, John, Albert, and Otto Ringling, founded the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1884. It all ended Sunday, a sad day for our world, children, and all of us.
I was lucky enough to see the 'real' Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® circus a few times as a child. I think my lifelong love of jugglers came from those experiences. And elephants. And my complete bafflement on the topic of putting one's head into the mouth of a lion. When I had my own kids I didn't need an excuse when a circus came to town. Off we went to the big top in the mall parking lot, a shadow of the 'Greatest Show On Earth', but a circus nonetheless.
What kid didn't want to run away from home to join the circus? Sara Gruen's 'Water For Elephants' captured that dream perfectly. No wonder her book was so popular. It is just a piece of a tradition of 'running away to join the circus' books, including John Irving's 'A Son Of The Circus', Tiny Kline's memoir 'Circus Queen & Tinker Bell', and Daniel Wallace's 'Big Fish'.
Sunday's final performance was streamed live on Facebook and Youtube, and may still be viewed if you missed the live event Sunday. Despite a silly outer-space based through line, this was the ultimate circus with most of the elements (but not elephants) of the classic circus from our childhoods. The lions and tigers and performing horses were spectacular. The acrobats and trapeze artists were awe-inspiring. You're not going to find better clowns than at the circus that was tangentially famous for having its own clown college that trained close to 1,400 clowns in its 29 year history.
If you don't think this was the slickest show ever produced you simply weren't paying attention. You couldn't take your eyes off the acts, but if you did you saw they were only part of the production. Scene changes were choreographed as carefully and dynamically as any of the main acts, with stage hands dovetailing with the acts in the center ring to make transitions and every part of the show seamless.
Like many cultural institutions, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® circus has had to struggle with making itself relevant. You haven't lived until you've seen an enormous pig performing to the circus band rendition of Katy Perry's California Gurls. And yes, you CAN see that in the video if you missed the live streaming broadcast!
Even though the Greatest Show On Earth is finished, the circus isn't entirely gone. You can still visit Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where the Ringling brothers started it all. The Wisconsin Dells is famous for somewhat tacky tourist attractions and shows, but Circus World is anything but tacky. You get to see the history of the Greatest Show On Earth close up, and it is really worth it. Circus World even features a real circus in a real circus tent if you happen to go between late May and late August. I was sad when we brought our children there before the live circus season had begun, because they would have loved the big top. But there was plenty to look at. Old circus wagons, calliopes, posters... the real things from what, as of Sunday, is an era gone by. It is one of my favorite places and should be a must-see for anyone who is young at heart.
My grandfather Oscar H. Horovitz made his film, 'Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus' in 1943. It won an honorable mention in the ACL Ten Best awards that same year. Movie Makers magazine wrote, "Competence plus completeness distinguish Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Oscar H. Horovitz started his film with sequences of the circus's winter quarters in Florida and followed it as it entrained for Northern performances. Unloading the circus comes next and after informal views of the crews at work setting up tents and the performers preparing for work, there is a complete picture of the show in the big top. The quality of the lighting, although limited by the amount of illumination provided by the circus, is still astonishingly good. Even better is the sequencing of the scenes of the performances, for Mr. Horovitz succeeds in altering his camera positions almost as freely as if the circus were staged especially for him."
His talent was showing the human side of whatever he was filming, and making color films under natural or stage light without using movie lighting. That made his circus film not only a delightful look at the on stage and back stage circus, but a rare historical record of period entertainment. For me, my sister and our cousins it meant we could see the circus even when it wasn't in town. That was the greatest! One of the scenes I remember most vividly is the back stage clown tent, where clowns applied their makeup before doing the show in the big top. It was a simpler time.
The final show was missing at least three things I loved when I saw the Ringling Brothers circus as a child. First and foremost the elephants. To me a circus isn't a circus without elephants. Next was the clown car. How did all those clowns fit in those cars. When we were kids piling into a friend's Volkswagen Beetle that iconic clown car was what we thought of. Is the clown car really passé? And three rings. The final show had performance areas, but only one center ring. Part of the area surrounding the center ring was a large skating rink that was used impressively throughout the show. That was cool. But to me those three rings with simultaneous acts in all three was the iconic defining feature of 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.
There are some things that are just part of our world. We take them for granted even if we don't go to see them ourselves. When they're gone they leave an enormous gap in the fabric of our lives, and nothing is ever the same. At the end of Sunday's video the performers and their families take the center ring for the last time, and it is one of the most moving images imaginable. Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson talks about the circus as a community and a way of life. The families that travel together with a traveling school for the children. What will become of all those performers, back stage people, and all the people who have been part of the circus world for so many years? There is now an enormous hole in their world. Their loss is unimaginable.
So is ours.