(Admin note: ANY negative comment regarding perceived animal abuse or showing glee at the demise of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus WILL BE REMOVED. If you can’t say something nice or helpful, then don’t say anything at all.)
This week, the world found out that one of the longest running circuses ever (over 140 years) will be folding up its (figurative) tent at the end of the current season in May. Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey are closing up shop. Literally thousands of people will be losing their jobs and livelihoods, their lifestyle, and their homes. Families will be uprooted and left dangling in a world that doesn’t understand them and has no place for them. So not only is a multi-generational entertainment institution committing suicide, but whole families will have to figure out how to live life outside of circus.
This probably sounds a bit odd to most of you. You grew up in a house, with siblings, and your dad and probably your mom had a regular job that they left the house to do. You left your house to go to school, played some intramural sports, visited the library, went to church on Sundays, mowed the grass, and did all those mundane things that make up American life.
Circus is not just a bunch of performers traveling around for a few months a year, doing their thing, then heading home to a white clapboard house somewhere with a garden and a dog. Circus is a complete lifestyle. It is a job, a home, a place you raise your kids (right into the business). A circus is a closed, somewhat utopian community of people all working toward the same goal – entertaining whoever buys a ticket to come inside the tent.
For those that have never seen behind the tent, in the “back yard” of the tent, this may not make a lot of sense. But there are circus families who have literally never known anything else. The adults were raised in circus, and their parents were raised in circus. Naturally, their children are raised in circus, too. In circus there are 100 mothers, and 100 fathers, and more siblings than you can shake a stick at. Families in circus work as a collaborative; when the parents are performing, the babies are being tended by other members of the circus family. Children begin training to perform when they are toddlers; most settle into some sort of performance art after trying several. They may perform multiple arts. A trapeze artist can also be a high-wire walker, a girl on the lyra can also work the silks or be a contortionist. Rigley artists can also be tramp artists, and clowns can be acrobats. The same girl who rode the elephant or elegant Percheron horse in the opening spec(tacular) may also be the girl balancing on top of a teeter board or juggling during another act. The beautiful blond woman in the sparkly dress with the trained dogs may also be the person doing facepainting during the intermission. Those who don’t go into performing can find their own work in the circus. Someone needs to sell tickets, do the accounting and payroll, put up the rigging, move the props, care for the animals, keep good food cooking in the cook tent, and go ahead of the circus to do publicity and manage permits and locations. No one in circus (unless they are a huge star) do only one thing. The circus runs because everyone works, everyone can perform multiple duties, and the “show must always go on.”
My heart breaks for these families. Imagine a man who has spent his whole life on the high wire, teaching his children to do the same, who now has to find a “regular” job. Imagine that man working at the local hardware store selling nails and screws and boards, or in an office trying to sell insurance. Imagine a woman whose elegance plays well in the circus ring as she clings to the lyra and dances in mid-air, now working as a checkout clerk at the local grocery store, or as a teller in a bank. Imagine the children, suddenly ripped away from the circus family/community they knew, where they were either homeschooled or schooled in small groups, now having to “fit in” at school when their biggest skill is knowing how to put on stage makeup and balance on enormous rubber balls while juggling clubs that are bigger than their legs.
Of course there are still circuses traveling out there. Most are small, some mid-sized, but few the size of Ringling. One big one, the UniverSoul circus, has limited travel and audience by its nature. Cirque du Soleil, who some would argue is circus, is not circus, but simple street performance art (sorry, Cirque fans). There are more performers being let go from Ringling than UniverSoul can take in, and the smaller show are already full of performers. What is left for these people?
I know there are those out there that may not think that circus is legitimate, and that the performers are not legitimate either. But they are. This has been a serious line of work for tens of thousands of people over time. They do the work they love, the work they know, the work they are good at, and make people gasp, smile, clap, jump to their feet, and live for a few moments in a magical world where gravity doesn’t count, defying death is a matter of routine, and the sparkles are only matched by the wonder in the children’s eyes. How many of us have thrilled at the expression of power exhibited in a spirited ride of the Cassock Riders, thundering their horses around the ring at breakneck speeds? How many of us have looked up at that man on the sway poles, wondering how on earth he stays up there with all that swinging and twirling? How many of us have watched a dual silk act full of romance and incredible emotion, bolstered by sweeping, intense music? How many of us have marveled at the sheer size of an Asian or African elephant, while also noticing the kindness in its eyes? How many of us have laughed until we hurt at the antics of the funny men and women in the circus – the clowns?
The closing of Ringling stabs us all in the heart. Being able to say you were a performer for Ringling was a badge of honor, something you bragged about, something you aspired to. Ringling performers often went on to tour with other circuses, bringing their talents and experience to smaller shows, entertaining more and more people every year. I know a lot of these people through my marriage to a Ringling clown. It hurts me a great deal to see their lives ripped out from under them.
So now what? If you care at all for these people’s lives, then don’t stop loving circus. While Ringling still won’t be around, there are plenty of other circuses that ARE around. I’m including a list of them below, along with information on Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the one-time home of the actual Ringling brothers (yes, they were actual people!) and information on the Ringling Museum and dCa’ d’Zan, in Sarasota, Florida. Want to keep circus alive? Visit the circus. And the institutions that honor them.
Places to visit about circus:
The Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida (also includes a tour of the mansion Ca’ d’Zan, former home of John and Mabel Ringling)