by Rev. Austin Miles
(Before becoming a minister, this columnist in younger years worked as a circus ringmaster for major shows throughout the U.S. and Canada, bringing extra insight to this breaking story)
The Ringling Brothers Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth, will be no more after May 1, 2017. It is closing for good. Like everything else, it has had its day. The surprise announcement was made to heartbroken performers this past Saturday, January 14th, after a performance in Orlando.
This came as a shock since only a couple of days before, they grandly announced they would have the first female ringmaster in the 146 year history of that circus. She was counting on a full career. She was in rehearsals to take that spot. So there was no clue of the almost immediate announcement.The season for the grandeur we all looked forward to is sadly coming to a close.
There are five seasons of life. The first season is birth and exploration; the second–adolescence to young adulthood, the third–career and family–the fourth–old age (for those fortunate enough to reach that point), and THEN–drum roll…the fifth season…that was…f a n f a r e....THE CIRCUS SEASON!
How everyone looked forward to seeing the circus wagons come to town and the canvas big top being set up. Many town folk showed up to help put it up in order to get free tickets to the show where one could see things never before seen, daredevils risking their very lives to present their death defying acts to gain applause.
To add to the drama an ambulance with the back door open sat near the performance area, emphasizing the danger that was about to displayed. Accidents were very rare, but this was a press agent’s gimmick designed to add more excitement to the event, which kept audiences on the edge of their seats.
The early circus days, were accompanied by other traveling entertainments, such as ‘rep shows,’ where the troupe traveled with a canvas theater doing a different play every night for a week plus vaudeville specialties between the acts. This all took place during an era without TV shows, iPad and computerized movies allowing heroes to perform amazing stunts.
To be entertained in those early days meant going out somewhere to see something. The circus played a key role in satisfying that need. This intriguing and somewhat mysterious group of performers did shows in many towns that had never seen “foreigners’ before, nor the many exotic animals that were part of the troupe. I remember playing in Canada where no one had ever seen an elephant before.
The circus began in 18th Century England where noted equestrian, Sgt. Major Phillip Astley, who was a famous member of the 15th Light Calvary Brigade, began giving public performances with his horses on a property he purchased at Half Penny Hatch in Surrey County, which today is known as Waterloo Station.
His performances became so popular that he expanded the program, adding acrobats, jugglers and clowns to keep everyone entertained as the horses were being prepared for their next exhibitions. The news of this crowd-growing entertainment crossed over the pond to America, where John Rickets introduced the concept as the Rickets’ Circus.
Since the original idea was created and presented by horse master, Phillip Astley, from that day on, the Ringmaster of the Circus, who announces, coordinates and presents the performances, would be referred to and billed as the Equestrian Director.
Other circuses were created and crisscrossed the American landscape. The Ringling Brothers Circus, also at one time known as the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, came together as the granddaddy of all circuses. It performed under a huge big top and indeed was a traveling city. Instead of the old circus wagons, the Ringling show traveled by two trains. And they did one-night stands. That meant, a different city every night and every day. The troupe slept on the train on their way to the next city.
They could pack up and load that entire community along with the Big Top, personnel, equipment, tented facilities for the animals, wardrobe, dressing tents and laundry and then reassembled it all in time for a matinée and night performance in a different city the very next day This so impressed the Kaiser of Germany that he came to America to spend a few days with the circus to see how they could move such a vast city so quickly. The Kaiser was eager to learn how to move his troops with more efficiency.
The Tom Packs Circus took the circus out of the tents and put them into auditoriums and outdoor sports arenas. That was a huge change. Outdoors, the aerial acts could go higher in the air and the finale of the show was a giant fireworks display. That circus had 10 rings and this Ringmaster had to keep track of all 10 of them.
The circus became a must see event wherever it played and it packed the stadiums. There was a lot of TV coverage. Then the animal rights people began to picket the shows urging the public not to attend claiming that the animals were mistreated. Even though they did exaggerate some of their accusations, they did have some legitimate beefs.
The animals mostly spent their times in cages or staked to the ground like the elephants with no real freedom of movement. This should never be. There seemed to be no awareness of animal instincts for certain freedoms which is vital to them.
I did not know what went on backstage due to being on the performance floor throughout the show. It was brought to my attention that performers loved their animals and took good care of them. Not only that, the performing animals were the bread and butter for the trainers, so they were not about to do anything harmful to them.
There was one incident that I did witness. A baby elephant during a performance got frisky and knocked down an assistant in the act with her trunk and then tried to do more harm to him while he was on the ground. After the show, the trainer took the little elephant outside and beat it viciously with a bull hook. This was totally wrong and strong objection was raised.
There was another incident of a chimp trainer from Mexico wearing military style boots who would kick his chimp unmercifully. This angered the circus performers who took the chimp away from him and virtually ran him out of the country. He would never be able to work in the U.S. again. So any animal cruelty was rare and the circus performers themselves would take action against it. Again, this was all back in another era.
It was inevitable that the circus would eventually end. First of all, it became too expensive to move the show and pay for arenas, and travel expenses have gone out of sight. I can remember that in those early days, I would stay in the best hotels with no strain on my budget. But as the years went by, hotel rates skyrocketed and I could not afford to stay in the very hotels I had used all those years, even though I was making considerably more money.
The entertainment world drastically changed. Now there is home entertainment,where you can watch the best movies and variety shows on TV without leaving your living room. The new computerized movies can provide thrills and chills without having to go out to see them even though many do go to see them on the big screen or in 3-D.
Plus, Ringling itself became much too glitzy, which downplayed the actual skills involved. It became a performance factory. Because of the high technology used, the performances became predictable and mechanical, losing its appeal.
Under pressure from PETA, the elephants were taken out of the circus and put in a compound for a proper retirement. The natural elephants in the show were a tremendous draw and when they left, so did most of the public.
The raw, tough gritty rag-bag circuses of the past displayed an honesty in their performances that was real and yes, daring. It did not look planned. It was not predictable which was a part of its intrigue. It was its own little world. Sometimes something can become too modernized.
Ringling’s latest ‘modernized’ ploy was to use a female Ringmaster (ring Mistress?) Earlier they tried a black Ringmaster and that did not really work. Besides, the taste of the public now is constantly changing. The days of habit are gone. Most of the smaller circuses have folded up. Now the big one itself has become too expensive to operate, meaning, the circus is no more. It is all over. But what a run it had while it lasted.
It is to be noted that the circus was a proud family tradition (it grieves me to say “was” which confirms that the circus is no more). While the world’s entertainment has evolved to vulgarity, obscenity,filthy sex scenes and perversions to attract people, the circus has never needed a censor. It has remained a wholesome family entertainment. That never changed. It was a tradition that will be greatly missed. Especially by one who was once a part of it. But life moves on. That is inevitable. And so be it. It is time to say goodbye.
To capture the real heart of the circus, below is a prayer of a clown, written by the late Dan “Pappy” Kerr which fully expresses the true heart of the circus:
The PRAYER of A Clown
HELP ME TO, Cause more smiles than frowns—
Create more laughter than tears–
Scatter more sunshine than rain–
Dispense more happiness than gloom—
Spread more cheer than despair—
CONTINUE TO GIVE ME: The privilege of entertaining orphans, under-privileged kids and crippled children. And withdraw not the special blessing I’ve always received for doing this work.
CONTINUE TO GIVE ME, The opportunity of working with the small fry of every race, creed and color, and the use of this opportunity to try to encourage them to help make a better world in which to live.
NEVER LET ME, Know fame or fortune to the extent that I will forget or neglect my friends.
NEVER LET ME, Grow so big that I will fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged.
NEVER LET ME, Forget that I AM A CLOWN and a member of an old and honored profession, and should be a credit to that profession by forever striving to keep Clowning on a high and decent level where it rightfully belongs.
NEVER LET ME, Forget that my work is to try to cheer people up, make them happy and make them laugh. make them forget momentarily all the unpleasant things in their lives.
NEVER LET ME, Acquire financial success to the point where I will discontinue calling upon my Creator in the hour of need, or acknowledging Him in the hour of plenty.
I AM THANKFUL FOR, Being a part of, and having a part in, the one great entertainment the entire family can enjoy, the one great entertainment that has never needed a censor–THE CIRCUS.
I AM THANKFUL FOR, Having found my work, a work in which I take great pleasure and in which I grow in happiness and satisfaction.
I AM THANKFUL FOR, The reputation I have of being able to repeat on any date ever worked.
I AM THANKFUL FOR, The million safe and non-accident miles I’ve traveled.
The million people I’ve appeared before;
The million laughs I’ve had in “Clown Alley.”
“Bless all Clowns and Circus Troupers wherever they may be, protect and watch over us and forgive our mistakes. Help us all to give our very best performance right up to the final curtain. And, when we join the assembly in the backyard of heaven to make “SPEC” for through-out eternity, let not one member of our profession be absent when the whistle blows.” Amen
Dan “PAPPY” Kerr.
And so, dear people…thank you for coming…and a very pleasant….good night.