Thursday, May 4, 2017

No Circus to Join

"I'm off the join the circus" was a favorite saying when someone wanted to run to get away from it all.
   P.T. Barnum created the beginnings of Ringling Brothers, Barnum, & Bailey Circus in 1821. After 146 years of bringing joy, astonishment, thrills, and laughter to audiences all over the world the merry month of May 2017 has turned cheerless because the Big Top has folded.
   The huge canvas tent faded into the past many years ago when the circus moved into big arenas. Lot lice, townspeople who hung around in hopes of pulling the ropes for a free ticket to the show disappeared. The manual labor involved in raising the big tent was enormous and a sight in of itself.
   The circus from the moment it rolled into town either by horse drawn caravans or the long train was a prelude to the excitement. I was privileged to see the entire thing when the big show steamed into Frankfort, KY to inaugurate the new downtown hotel-arena complex by the river. 
  The long train reach from the Capitol Avenue Bridge through the station to the river. First the equipment was unloaded onto big trucks and taken to the arena in the early morning hours. You heard the roustabouts yelling 'John Orderly', circus talk for get a move on. Workers were old hands and knew their jobs, which gave the entire procedure the precision of a ballet.
  Then came the colorful wagons of animals, performers, and clowns dressed up in their finery to parade up Ann Street to Main Street, and then down to the arena. When the lions roared we shivered in anticipation of the great show to come.
   The arena in Frankfort is very small, but somehow they managed to cram three rings into the limited space. The lines and trapezes were rigged across the ceiling with engineering precision. The big show played for one performance, if I remember correctly, and the bleachers seats were packed to the rafters. The roasted-in-the-shell peanuts were salty and the cotton candy sticky.
   I've talked with friends who remember the Big Top with it's tarnished glamour before other forms of entertainment pushed it aside. Who cared if it was hot & dusty the sense of wonder was there as they suspended breathing when the aerialists swung high above their heads to fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

   There were no bailouts for the circus and many reasons have been given for its demise, but the one that bothers me most of all is the shorter attention spans of today's children.
   What kind of future do they have if they are unable to focus long enough to observe something that is constantly changing in the three rings? Has their sense of awe and amazement been reduce to a two-by-two screen?
   "I'm off the see the elephant" is a famous western saying when someone traveled to see something exotic and wonderful. It appears in many western novels. What pleasures with readers have when the only elephants they've seen are housed in special enclosures. Remember the elephant is a working animal in several cultures like our horse. 
   What are your memories of a real circus, large or small, dusty lots, dancing elephants, elegant ladies on prancing horses, and clowns? Clowns - send in the clowns.
   Barbara Appleby created our clown with its grotesque smile painted around his mouth who can't hide the tear on his face when the Big Top came down for the last time.
   If you can find a copy of the old movie, The Greatest Show on Earth then that is as real as it will get from now on because the show is no more. The end of a venerable and beloved institution.

Nash Black, author of Games of Death.