Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The circus leaves town

    Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it is going out of business this week. The last shows will be in May. It was sad news, even though I haven't gone to the circus in years, and when I did it was always with free tickets through the paper. Still, the circus struck me as a glorious anachronism, a wonder, and I valued it, and marveled that it was still here. And this was 18 years ago.
    My parents never took me to the circus. I imagine it seemed to them something that gentiles do. Which makes it odd that I had such a nostalgic affection for it—or perhaps that explains it. Either way, I went a number of times—with my brother in the 1980s, researching a story, then with my kids. They were three and four when I took them and wrote this column. The photos are from activities before the start of the circus, which was trying to be more interactive. Families got to pet animals, and performers were handing out peacock feathers and showing kids how to balance them on their faces. 

     Every so often, on a busy street corner, I will squint and try to summon back the pedestrians of the past, try to see the street scene as it might have been 40, 60, 100 years ago.
     It's the same street, the same corner. They were here, once, men in snappy fedoras, women in those wide, sloping hats, pulling on their white gloves as they stepped off the bus.
     Who's to say that it isn't the faintest flash, the flicker of some spirit of their humanity, lingering over the decades. Or maybe I'm just imagining things.
     That same yearning toward people past strikes me whenever I take in an entertainment that has been around for a long while, savoring the thought that I am doing something that people have always done.
     When I do something -- what's the opposite of cutting edge? Trailing edge. Something outmoded yet still -- incredibly, wonderfully -- here.
     For instance: this past Fourth of July, we joined a contingent of my wife's family to watch the Skokie Park District set off fireworks. Thousands of people were there, neglecting their computers, their Gameboys, ignoring all that virtual reality, IMAX and other more modern entertainment. Instead, they traveled to this spot, to spread out blankets, lay back and stare up into the night sky to watch explosions, tinted with powdered chemicals into brilliant hues, a treat that a Renaissance weaver or a Victorian wheelwright would instantly recognize and appreciate.
At the circus, 1999
   Ditto for the circus, the most famous of which, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, opened last night at the Allstate Arena.
     The circus is one of those things that shouldn't be here. Think about it. Ringling Bros. began its circus five years after the Civil War ended. It is a big extravaganza of animals and entertainers, something that traveled from town to town in the years before television, before radio, before movies, heck, before the automobile.
     It should have petered out 10 years ago, if not 20 years ago, bid farewell in a blaze of nostalgia, the pundits rumbling about TV and video games and pervasive pre-adolescent cynicism killing off our beloved icon, the circus. Woolworth's is gone. Drive-in movies are virtually gone. Yet the circus endures. Complaints from animal rights activists and the rise of our pervasive entertainment culture have had no effect. The circus was big when it was the only show in town. And it's still big, muscling aside its younger progeny once or twice a year.
     Why? Who would bother heading to the Allstate Arena to watch a troupe of performing dogs when they can flip on the Nature Channel and go on safari? Who would want to see frolicking clowns when they could, far more easily and far more cheaply rent a video of Jim Carrey in "Liar Liar."  
Balancing peacock feathers.

     A lot of people, apparently.
     The circus is no marginal operation: It is camping in Chicago for nearly a month.
     I think it is because the circus satisfies something of the aforementioned kinship to the past. It is both real and unbelievable, alive and a link to our national heritage.
     The circus is a cliche, a cultural cliche -- the lions, the tigers, the clowns, the swaying elephants.
     Like most cliches — think of Elvis — it is encountered usually, not in its pure form, but through some reference to it. You see a picture of Elvis or hear his name evoked 100 times for every time you hear him sing a song on the radio. You see a kitschy clown painting or a hectic meeting described as "a three-ring circus" or a movie like Tod Browning's "Freaks" 500 times for every time you actually find yourself at a circus.
    It touches something youthful and enduring in us, a sense of wonder that modern life has yet to erase.
     Just to announce its arrival is to feel a certain thrill. Say the sentence: "The circus is in town." See what I mean?

                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 4, 1999


  1. I guess they couldn't compete with the new circus coming on January 20th...

  2. PETA has a point but there is something sad about their shutting down.

  3. The performers are the ones who will suffer the most, I think. We don't even have variety shows any more for them to display their talents. What do you train a aerial artist to do after she loses her job? Or a clown? There are only so many birthday parties.


  4. Sad in a way that the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd (or is it the other way around?)has yielded largely to the pallid delights of digitized entertainment, but I never liked the "death defying" circus acts -- walking high wires without a net or poking chair legs at man-eating tigers. They did, of course, represent an improvement over earlier public spectacles. The Oxford Circus "Tube" stop sign brings to mind the grisly fact that the London Underground railway system opened in 1863, early enough that Londoners in great numbers could ride on public transport to witness the last publicn hanging,just outside Newgate Prison. Parliament abolished public executions in 1868 on grounds that they appealed to the worst impulses of the public and were not a deterrent to crime. the last U.S. official public execution was not until 1936.

    Tom Evans

  5. Say the sentence, "The circus is in town" and I think of Friday. I don't feel a thrill - I feel a little bit of dread. Go bears, go!


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