Kid at Heart
The corporation which owns Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus announced today that the world famous circus troupe will be performing its final thirty shows this spring - and that sometime in May the Big Top would be collapsed for good. The closing, hailed as a victory by animal rights groups which have long protested the inhumane treatment of animals by "the greatest show on earth," nevertheless represents the end of one of America's most iconic and colorful entertainment venues.
Ringling Brothers began as a family venture in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin, when five of seven brothers started their own circus. One of the staples of the growing business was animal acts, and particularly the Ringling's world famous elephants. But tales of cruelty to the big, lovable pachyderms by trainers led to fairly constant protests over the past several years. The company finally took the elephants off of its travel circuit and paid a fine to the Department of Agriculture over the reputed mistreatment of the animals. All of that has led to a significant decline in ticket sales - and ultimately to the announcement of the show's closure for good.
In recent years Ringling Brothers has set aside a 200-acre elephant conservation area in rural Florida, a place designed to preserve and enhance the Asian elephant population.
Growing up in relative modest circumstances, my circus experiences were with the small, dirty, traveling varieties that traipsed across the Midwest every summer. One of my earliest memories is of my mother and I visiting with a man and an elephant inside of a circus tent - probably in or around Goodman, Missouri, in the early 1950's. It wasn't the actual circus show. Mom had just taken me into a tent as they were setting up, or tearing down, so that I could see the elephant.
Poor little Rocky never got to go to "the greatest show on earth," the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus - but he did have a close encounter with the traveling spectacle many years later.
There was a period of several years in the late eighties and early nineties when I practiced journalism as a sideline. Part of that hobby employment was doing freelance work for the Neosho Daily News, and my byline eventually read "McDonald County Correspondent." As a freelancer, I wasn't housed in the newspaper office but instead brought my articles by as time permitted. The office was on the edge of Neosho, Missouri, backed-up against a hillside. Halfway up that hillside was a train track.
One day after dropping off my material, I came out to my car just as a train began to pass behind (and above) the newspaper office. To my delight, it was the long and highly decorated Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus train! I stood transfixed for ten minutes or so as the legenday circus train chugged past. I had stumbled into a storybook experience. It wasn't until later that I realized that a good journalist would have rushed back into the newspaper office and snagged a photographer. But I wasn't a journalist, I was a kid - and I was mesmerized!
I am sorry that the circus animals have had to endure neglect and suffering and derogation over the years, and I appreciate that the Ringling organization has recently taken measures to recognize and offer redress for that deplorable situation. But a part of me also grieves for the slow, yet steady, disappearance of traveling entertainments - tent revivals, medicine shows, Vaudeville, carnivals, and circuses - that brought Americans out of their homes and into contact with the world. Now it seems we get all of the "spectacle" we can handle on-line - and we are once again hunkered down in our hovels.
Goodbye Ringling Brothers. With your passing, America is bidding farewell to a significant part of its past. Thanks for the amazement and joy that you brought to so many for so long! We miss you already!