Saturday, May 2, 1997

Circus, Circus

I have always loved the circus. My mother used to tell about taking me to the circus when I was very young and how I laughed so hard and so loudly at the clowns that people in the audience were turning to watch me instead of the clowns. I either don't remember that or those memories are mixed in with having gone to a circus when I was elementary school aged, back when circuses still played under the big top, possibly Clyde Beaty Cole Bros. show.

Somehow, I never saw another live circus until I was thirty years old. The Broome County Veteran's Memorial Arena (to give its full name) in Binghamton, NY, opened in 1973 and Ringling Bros/Barnum&Bailey played there that summer and a friend and I brought our five year old sons to see the show. Ah... what magic! The Ringling Bros circus returned to Binghamton each year and each year would find me in the audience. There are really two RB/B&B shows that would alternate routes, so each year you would see a different show than you saw the year before. When my daughter was born in 1982 I could scarcely wait until she was old enough to see the show; and again, when my youngest was born in 1985 I eagerly looked forward to his being old enough to appreciate the circus.

I loved the whole show: the acrobats, the daredevils, the unicyclists, the trapeeze artists, the high wire walkers, even the animal acts (okay, so they're my least favorite acts, except I really like the elephants). I like the parade, I like the smell of the circus, the smell of cotton candy and jungle animals, the noise, the lights, the ringmaster's cry of "Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages!" But most of all, ah, most of all, I love the clowns. I always liked getting to our seats twenty or thirty minutes before showtime because the clowns would come out early and begin to entertain the audience all the while that people would be coming in and looking for their seats. And I was always delighted whenever I was able to get front row seats!

A number of years ago, probably 1980 or '81, I had secured a bunch of front row seats -- I mean really front row, right on the floor, elephants clomping past just a yard or so from your feet. (Since those days the front row has been positioned back and up, at the usual hockey game seating except without the plexiglass, but back then they used to put three rows of temporary seating in front of that.) My wife's parents and her youngest brother and sister (who were still just kids then) came to the circus with us. My mother-in-law had not wanted to come, saying that the circus would make her too nervous, worrying that somebody might fall from a trapeeze or a lion might eat the lion tamer, but I had an extra ticket and we persuaded her to come. So there we were in our front row seats, with her being a bit nervous because looking up at the rigging it was obvious that there was going to be some kind of arial act put on directly over our heads (and there was and it was thrilling and spectacular, but it's not the point of this anectdote). The house lights dimmed, and all of the clowns but for one had exited the arena to prepare for the opening parade. That one clown (possibly stretching his act to allow the parade to form up) had gone to a bald man in the audience directly across from us and was pretending to polish his head. Then he came directly towards us. My mother-in-law told us later that she was afraid that he was going to pick on my father-in-law, who although not bald, did have quite thin hair on top. Instead, the clown took her by the hand, lead her out into the middle of the arena and danced with her and then, picked out by a bright spotlight in the midst of an otherwise darkened arena, before an audience of at least five thousand people, took her in his arms and gave her a big kiss before leading her back to her seat as the band struck up a march, the audience roared and applauded, and the circus parade began. That she forgave me for dragging her to the circus that day against her wishes demonstrates what a sweet and kind and gentle lady she is.

In recent years, Ringling Bros decided that the Binghamton area was not a large enough market for an annual visit and downgraded it to performances only every other year. In 1995 we were busy preparing our house for possible sale. In 1996 we were still new in this area and somehow, although Ringling Bros. does pay an annual visit to Providence, we were too busy to get to a performance. (May is a very busy time in our house since my son and daughter both have May birthdays -- and parties -- just six days apart.) At any rate, the circus ads appeared and I decided that there was no way that I was going to miss it this year. After more than twenty years of annual circus performances, three years without the circus was the limit; I just had to get to the show this year.

My wife was not interested in going. My daughter informed me that she would not attend the circus because of her support for animal rights; she did not approve of animal acts. My son was delighted at the chance to go. So, Friday night I rushed home from work, announced that dinner would be take-out pizza because I wanted to get to the Providence Civic Center by 7:00pm. My daughter changed her mind and decided to come with us after all. Off to Providence, through snarled traffic at the Civic Center off ramp due to circus traffic (and a large parking area near the Civic Center had just been closed down for the construction of a new in-town shopping mall). Finally got into a parking garage, over to the Civic Center, in line for tickets, get the tickets, missing the pre-show clowns and the parade at the beginning. The first performers were high above the Civic Center floor by the time we got to our seats.

Things have changed. Some changes were good, some weren't. There were far fewer hawkers roaming the aisles vending popcorn and soda and cotton candy and circus trinkets. There were some, but not in the numbers that I remember. Good, fewer distractions, although I wouldn't mind if they stopped selling lighted swords, etc. for kids to wave in the air. Cotton candy with a Cat-in-the-hat type hat for ten bucks? Are you kidding? Well, okay, we still have a number of plastic circus mugs that had come with the over-priced snowcone. Souvenirs. And one year my daughter fell in love with a stuffed animal elephant that was the featured toy that year for twelve dollars (this must have been seven or eight years ago) and I gulped and bought it. (And discovered, to my surprise, that it was a well-made stuffed animal, not the shoddy merchandise that I had expected... oh, I saw what appeared to be the same elephants except that this year they are twenty bucks.)

But the show, the show itself, has been scaled back.

The circus was always filled with spectacle. It is hype and hyperbole. P.T. Barnum was a showman and a huckster. But the circus, filled with glitter and excitement and noise and spectacle, has always been a fantastic show. It was always worth the price of admission. It was excess, it was overkill, it was unbelievable, it was fantastic. Yes, everyone doubled and tripled their roles. The highwire act and the bareback riders would also be marching in fantastic costumes in the circus parade. But there were so many acts. It was truly a three ring circus and sometimes just the center ring would be in use, as when Gunter Gabel Williams appeared with the big cats, and then the other two rings would be filled with acrobats and tumblers using spring boards, and next all three rings would feature trapeeze performers, and then the clowns would appear again... There was only one time when all three rings were in use (other than during parade type activity) and that was really the same act, spread across three rings. Otherwise, there was one highwire act, one trapeeze act, etc. One act at a time, and in between each act was an extremely lame on-going act about making a movie about Cleopatra, featuring the overloud but quite forgettable singing of the ringmaster. As in the circus of previous years, there was always something going on, but this year what was going on was mostly filler in between what was only about half the number of actual circus acts as were presented just a few years ago.

I could always forgive the hype and hucksterism (in fact I could be amused by it) because the circus was such a fantastic spectacle featuring so many incredible acts that it truly more than gave value for my money. Did you ever pick up a package at the supermarket and suddenly realize that what used to be a 16 oz. package is still the same size but now only holds 14 oz.? That is what has happened to the circus. The package is still the same size, the show lasts about the same amount of time, but the contents have been reduced. There are far fewer real acts and more fluff and filler. They make a big deal out of "Team Oxygen" but this is really just a collection of rollerblades zipping back and forth with lots of loud music and flashing lights, but they weren't really doing anything I hadn't seen my nephew and his friends doing on the halfpipe ramp my brother had constructed in his backyard. And the unicycle basketball player act is getting rather stale. The act has been around for years without change except I don't think their skill level is up to what it was ten years ago. Other than that, the acrobats and arial acts were as good as ever, but there were so many fewer acts than before.

I've never felt let down by the circus before.

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