Three Ring Circus
by John Delach
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (The Circus) is calling it quits after 146 years. The owners are figuratively folding their tents and going out of business this spring. Let me make this clear before we continue, “The Circus” in this piece is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and nothing else. Conveniently for me, the last stand for the Eastern version of The Greatest Show on Earth will be at the newly rebuilt Nassau Coliseum on May 21st. Tickets for the last performance are currently being re-sold at a range of prices from $250 to $2,980. I don’t plan to attend, but I may seek out the final nesting place for The Circus train that will be parked as close as possible to this venue.
The Wall Street Journal took a stand on this blaming the animal activists wrongly making the case of supposed animal abuse as the reason for its demise. In fact, the courts did find against these activists but the bad publicity and changing attitudes took their toll and the circus reluctantly eliminated the elephant acts in 2016. Elephants have always been the people’s choice. We love elephants and well we should. They are unique, gentle, sweet creatures. Similar to Golden Retrievers but just too damn big to have as a pet. Elephants at the zoo are fine but The Circus gives us the opportunity to watch them strut their stuff.
Elimination of these wonderful beasts was the final nail in the coffin but the patient was already on life support. Curiously, despite our collective fond memories of the circus, its very existence has been a struggle even in the best of times. The logistics alone are monumental.
The Circus is a mobile show, actually two shows, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour. Each tour spends the season traveling on and living in two separate circus trains each a mile long with 60 cars: 40 passenger cars that the workers and performers call home and 20 freight cars carrying everything from equipment to the stars personal automobiles. Films showing these impressive trains moving about the country can be found on line.
The living quarters are converted passenger stock dating back to the post-World War II golden age of streamliners: circa 1949 to 1962. The Circus mechanics have to be one part Houdini to keep this so called heritage rolling stock up to the Federal Railroad Administration’s codes. Everything about The Circus is Eisenhower’s America.
Throw out lines we all use originated there: “Rain or shine,” from circuses with tents. “Hold your horses,” warning drivers to let the elephants through. “White elephant, grandstanding, get the show on the road and jump on the bandwagon,” are other examples. As a kid growing up, I can recall three expressions that my mother and her friends and neighbors used to express exasperation with confusion and crowds: “What is this, Grand Central Station,” “This is a Cecile B. DeMill production” and “This is a three ring circus.”
Being a city kid, I never saw The Circus under the big top that the owners abandoned in 1956. My circus experiences all happened in Madison Square Garden. To be honest, this annual event was never the experience once described by a reporter as being, “Like Christmas, your birthday and the Fourth of July all happening on the same day.”
The annual hype never failed to raise my expectations. The grand, gaudy and colorful posters and newspaper photographs of the elephants being led out of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and across town to the Garden fed my excitement. (The Circus train parked in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s passenger train yards in Sunnyside, Queens and the tunnel was the easiest way to move these magnificent creatures under the East River.)
Reality was deflating and sum total of my circus experiences – confusion. My mother was right; a person can’t absorb a three ring circus. Too much activity going on at the same time and it’s all terribly confusing.
Later in life, I escorted my daughter and son and other guests to my company’s corporate box at Madison Square Garden to witness later editions of The Circus. My company was quite generous in making their box available to different managers to share with staff and their children. One senior person would attend to maintain some semblance of sanity and be responsible for ordering hot dogs, popcorn soft drinks and other kid friendly food. Since the box hung from the ceiling, it seemed to me that a touch of mystery and awe was lost since we looked down on the trapeze artists and tight-rope walkers.
The main things I took away from those experiences were horrible headaches.
According to Rodney A. Huey, who authored, “An Abbreviated History of The Circus,” The Circus was undone by the coming of age of Nouveau Circuses that began in the mid-1970s. Mr. Huey quotes, Ernest Albrecht to explain the origin of this new venue. (If you are like me, you will find this explanation to be a remarkable example of new-speak mumbo-jumbo.) “Its birth was synergetic, reactionary, bicoastal and organically conceived by a group of aspiring artists…”
That leaves us with Cirque du Soleil that began in the mid-1980s as a subsidized money-losing show to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the French discovery of Canada. But it gained traction and today…” boasts more than a dozen traveling units and operates stationary productions in Orlando, Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas.”
And so it goes. Cirque du Soleil is now the circus of record and The Circus will be no more. When the lights go out at the Nassau Coliseum after the last show on May 21, 2017, the cast, crew and roustabouts will board the circus train for their last trip to Florida: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – RIP
Going home is such a ride,
Gong home is such a ride,
Isn’t going home a long and lonely ride?