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Mourning the death of the circus, the greatest family show on earth

Ringling Brothers Circus

Doug Anderson | Flickr CC

Paul Asay - published on 05/12/17

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus is closing May 21, marking the end of an entertainment era.

When I was in Disney World this January, I walked through a place called Storybook Circus — home to Dumbo’s flying elephants, cotton candy and big top tents galore. And I thought to myself, This might be the only “circus” that most of these kids will ever see.


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After this month, that wistful thought will be truer than ever. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus — once known as “The Greatest Show on Earth” — will thrill young and old for one last time at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York on May 21. After that, America’s biggest, best-known circus will shutter its big top forever.

It’ll be about two years shy of its 100th birthday.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circuses — already longtime entertainment powerhouses in their own right — joined forces back in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson was still president, horses still outnumbered automobiles, and the average movie ticket would set you back 7 cents.

Ringling Brothers Circus
Charmainezoe | Flickr CC

Not that everyone could go to the movies. People who lived in a city like New York or Chicago might have some entertainment options — a Vaudeville show, maybe, or a music concert. But most people didn’t live in the cities. America was a land of scattered small towns and family farms. “Entertainment” was more likely a game of checkers at the general store, or grandpa spinning yarns by the fire.


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No wonder the circus was such a big deal. Imagine what it must’ve been like when it came to town by train — tents spangled with primary colors, bellowing elephants and growling tigers, acrobats and clowns. Can we, with our smartphones and CGI, even fathom what it would’ve been like to be an 8-year-old and see those tents rise? Smell the peanuts roast? Hear the sideshow barker lure people to play a game of chance or take a peek into a darkened tent? “Step right up, ladies and gents, you won’t believe your eyes …”

The Greatest Show on Earth was no boast then. No matter so many children wanted to run away to join the circus.

Even as American entertainment evolved and tastes changed, the circus remained a constant. The circus I went to when I was a kid wasn’t that different from the circuses I saw on Dumbo (minus the flying elephant, of course) or in old Looney Tunes cartoons. My circus looked like my mom’s circus. And hers looked like her mother’s. And even as the patrons changed — starched collars giving way to polyester shirts, poodle skirts to designer jeans — the entertainment inside was always curiously, often comfortingly familiar. It was like a family heirloom passed down through the decades — the sights and smells, the ringmaster and big cats, the trapeze artists flying through the air.

Ringling Brothers Circus
EverettPublicLibrary | Flickr CC

But even heirlooms show their age eventually. Even when we keep them, they become curiosities, to be stared at only through glass cases.

The last time I went to the circus, I took my kids. It was a smaller circus — not the massive Ringling Bros. production. But it came with elephants and clowns and authentic big-top tents just like I remembered. We sat on hard bleachers just steps away from the nets and sawdust of the middle ring. I threw dietary constraints to the wind and bought my daughter some cotton candy, my son a caramel apple. He put the apple to his mouth, tried to take a bite and it immediately fell into the dirt. He looked at me, sad and pleading. I bought him another one with a smile and a hug. Such was the magic of the circus.

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But that was nearly 20 years ago. And even then, it felt … old. The circus didn’t feel like the Greatest Show on Earth: It felt like a relic. A creaky time machine back to a not-that-distant past.

Some say that animal rights activism was the death knell for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and that certainly contributed. In 2015, Feld Entertainment — the company that owns the circus — announced it’d no longer be using elephants in its shows. The last performance with the pachyderms took place last year.

But really, the controversy over the use of elephants was just a sign of something greater. The world had changed in a way that even the time-honored circus couldn’t keep up with. The Greatest Show on Earth was simply one more option — a sideshow itself in a world full of them.

Ringling Brothers Circus
Majunznk | Flickr CC

“Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop,” Feld Entertainment chair Kenneth Feld said in a statement. “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

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Maybe it’s fitting that the final performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus won’t be just be for the relatively few who’ll buy tickets. It’ll be streamed on the internet, too — on and Facebook Live. It feels like a strangely fitting, 21st-century ending for a circus that had its roots in the 19th.

I’d like to say that I’ll be watching, but that’d be a lie. I’ll have a movie to see or a game to play, I’m sure. And it’s not like the circus itself is dying. Cirque du Soleil productions give us clowns and acrobats with a Vegas-like sheen. A few traditional circuses continue to criss-cross the country, playing in smaller towns to smaller crowds. And if they pull their big tops down permanently, too, well, there’s always Disney World.

But still, the demise of the Ringling Bros. circus is unquestionably a landmark. And even though I haven’t seen a circus for decades, I’m still going to miss it — not for what it is, but what it was. For when my grandparents and great-grandparents stuffed themselves with roasted peanuts and laughed at the clowns, hid their eyes for fear the acrobats would fall. When dusty, dark tents became places of magic and wonder.

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