Thinking about the Circus (13 cents)

I went to the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey “greatest show on earth” circus at the Patriot Center yesterday. It was colorful, fun, a treat for the many kids in the audience and, truth be known, for the adults as well.

I understand that there are many opposed to circus animals – and this circus had horses, zebras (!), elephants, dogs and tigers. And I don’t know how how the animals are treated these days, and whether the many protests have made things easier for them. (Of course, I understand that traveling the country in circus vans is not like living in the wilds of Africa, but as I understand those animals living in the wilds (of wherever) are not having a great time of it either.)

Yet having enjoyed this circus, it was a bit low keyed, I thought. Maybe that’s economics, maybe it’s difficult to find sufficient talent, maybe it’s audience taste. There were something things missing: while there were many aerialists, there were no tight wire walkers, and the trapeze stunts were fairly limited. There were no lions. There were no clowns in little cars.

And while you can’t deny the talent of the performers, many of them are quite young, and most of them would probably have a hard time with the top Cirque du Soleil troops. At least, that was my impression.

And it made me think back to the circuses I attended growing up in St. Louis, which I remember as much more extravagent (perhaps they weren’t, but I think they were). They were real three ring circuses (something that I couldn’t understand since you could only focus on one thing at a time), and I think they must have been held in the old St. Louis Arena, a much bigger facility. Of course, I looked at things differently then and I remember my most prominent emotion was fear, not wonder, for I was certain that each and every performer would come crashing down to a very public death. (I will say that the old circuses had nets, and nets were missing at Ringling Bros this year. I think that’s because the performers weren’t high enough to need the nets for most of the acts – if they fell to the ground, the various mats strategically place, would break their fall.) The circus in St. Louis was not Ringling Bros. At least I don’t think so. The circus was sponsored by the local Shriners, and some of the money raised went to support the Shriner Hospital for Children. To this day, the Shriner circus in St. Louis continues.

I knew what a circus was, and what to expect, when I was very young, because there were two different circus shows on television, on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. One has slipped from my memory completely, but the other I recall was “Super Circus”, and it had a tall ringmaster, and his female companion sort of a sub-ringmaster, whose name was, as I remember it, Mary Hartline, who became perhaps my first TV girlfriend, with her perky ways and spring blond hair. Today, there are no circus shows on TV, are there?

My next live circus experiences came during the summers between 3rd and 4th, and 4th and 5th, grades, when we lived in an apartment development in Clayton MO, which had across the street, a large, large, large undeveloped field. (Now, and for the past 50 years or so, it is the site of Clayton High School; then it was a forgotten extension of Shaw Park.) For two years (again, as I recall), the circus set up there. Who they were, and where they came from, I never knew. What is even stranger, is that no one seemed to know, including my parents and my neighbors. They never seemed to understand who gave the circus the right to set up tents and sideshows and midways and bring lions and tigers and, perhaps worst of all, circus performers (thought to be gypsies and those that the gypsies had enticed into circus life at earlier performances elsewhere) right into our neighborhood. All we had to do was walk out of the building, cross the rarely traveled street, and go another maybe 50 feet, and we were there while they were putting up the circus, during the week or so the circus was in town, and while they were shutting everything down.

Our parents were all scared to death that we would decide to run away with the circus. They seemed to have all sorts of stories about children who were never heard from again. But in this age of the early 1950s (the Truman years, believe it or not), we young kids had our run of the world, and while our parents fretted and begged us not to go to the circus, we paid no attention to them whatsoever. That’s something else that wouldn’t happen today. Too bad.

Two other circuses:

I remember going to an outdoor circus somewhere. I want to say it was on the Washington University campus, but it probably wasn’t. I think I was in high school, and hadn’t been to a circus in a long time, but a bunch of us decided to go. And I remember we had a surprisingly good time, and that my strongest reaction was still fear, and not wonder, and certainly not boredom.

And then there was Moscow. I was Moscow in 1973, in the winter, my one and only visit there. I went with a loose group on a charter plane – when we were in the USSR, we could choose to stick with the group, or not, as we wished. I don’t remember if the trip to the circus was with the group; I think not. I think just a couple of us went, because we wanted to see the famous Moscow Circus. It was a great night.

A number of things. First, it was a one-ring circus in a circular building, not oval, so you could see everything from a very good angle, the seats being quite steep. I was sure that the concept of a three-ring circus would have made little sense to the Muscovites and they would have been correct.

Secondly, the circus talent was what you would expect, I thought, but the one big addition to the animal shows were the trained black bears. I have never seen bears in an American circus, but they were very talented, quite precise in their movements and (when you think about it, perhaps it’s not so surprising), they seemed to have a twinkly sense of humor. I think they knew when they were being amusing.

The third big surprise were the clowns, who rather than simply doing pratfalls, entertained (?) the crowd with a couple of political skits. The most interesting, in the upside down world of Communist Russia, was a skit that involved an idyllic Russian village, and innocent young maidens frolicking under the trees, when who should appear but a Russian Orthodox priest, who wanted them to believe in God, celebrate the religious holidays and go to church. What sacrilege to atheist Russia! Needless to say, the priest was a foolish, oafish, clumsy sort of guy, so when the young girls called their male fellow villagers, they were able to humiliate him and drive him off, never to be seen again.

I was amazed, and I have often wondered what goes on at the Moscow Circus today. I know the skits have changed.

That gets me to Washington and the times I went to the Ringling Bros. circus in the Washington Armory when my children were young. I remember most about that circus that it was very, very noisy, and that lights flashed everywhere, and it became dark then light, then dark then light. It was as much a sound and light show as a circus, and I remember how much it frightened one of my daughters (who will here go nameless), and that while I thought her fright was a bit extreme, I thought it was very understandable.

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