Yes, these pictures are terrible and I could have gotten better ones online. (But hey! So could you!) However, going through these old programs really brought back the memories, and more importantly the wonder, into sharp focus. (Even if the pictures are not in sharp focus.)
By the point we took Anabelle to "The Greatest Show on Earth," the animals were gone, it was down to one ring, and there were strong influences by Cirque du Soliel and flashy, Vegas type magic acts. That removed it from American Circus history...which is similar in a lot of ways to two of my other obsessions, Vaudeville and Professional Wrestling.
We went to the Circus every year when I was a kid. Eventually to the Meadowlands in NJ, but originally to Madison Square Garden itself. That historical venue added quite a bit of magic on its own. There was a participation atmosphere for us "Children of All Ages" over and above the cheering, ooh's and aah's. In later years they sold flashlight bodies with what looked like emergency vehicle lights on them that could be spun in celebration, lighting up the audience. When I was really young they sold little pen lights (that looked like cigarette lighters) on the ends of long vinyl strings. Those would be spun and the crowd was filled with larger circles of light. I begged my parents for one each year. They finally got me one...and I immediately spun it into an impact with the guard rail, shattering it into a zillion pieces.
Before that little diversion into childhood disappointment, we were talking about the circus itself, weren't we?
It really did have a magical feeling to it. However, I'm finding it hard to describe to people who never experienced it. Part of it is that Cirque, which has far reaching influence these days, tries so hard to be creepy and weird, while Ringling was all about being overwhelmingly flashy, fast and fun. The other part that's hard to get across is the sheer amount of things going on at once.
P.T. Barnum espoused and enhanced it extremely well during his time, and it worked in the arena shows on a grand scale. Having three rings of action going on at once yielded two outcomes.
2) The feeling that when you watched one act, you could be missing something even MORE SPECTACULAR in another ring added to the excitement.
Even the trapeze acts would go on two at a time, alternating the more impressive stunts, while most of the time (even for aerialists,) there were three acts going at once.
unicycle basketball team - The King Charles Troupe. This is not because of any affinity for basketball or unicycling, both of which have led to embarrassing failures and injuries. It's because within that enormous international cast, that group came from my home town of The Bronx.
It was only when the huge headliners would go on that there would be one a single act, dramatically announced "IN THE CENTER RING!"
I got to see two of the best, multiple times.
The circus was an uncontrolled amount of fun. The feats, the presentation the over enthusiasticness of the ring master, it all worked together to deliver spectacle after spectacle.
Even stuff like "The Living Unicorn!" worked. Yes, it was clearly a fluffy goat with it's two horns naturally(ish) fused together. However, the goat wasn't the point. It was the presentation, the pizzazz, the giant circus parade around the arena with pomp, and animals and performers that made what at any petting zoo would be an odd looking resident become the drama of THE LIVING UNICORN!!!
Speaking of pomp, the Circus band! Playing live, with three acts going at once, and always hitting their cues to point out the highlights of all three rings! Their loud, brassy style was a big part of the fun.
There was constant amazingness filled with thrills, laughs music and fun, featuring catchphrases that highlighted it all.
And there was always something going on, except for the intermission. Whenever set up time was happening, they'd -
SEND IN THE CLOWNS!!!
For those of you raised in the world where it seems only horror based clowns exist...boy did you miss out.
I blame Cirque and their creepy sunken eye, slow motion walking, boxing glove wearing, audience pestering version of clowns for this too. Steven King probably has a lot to answer for too.
Much like classic professional wrestling was really designed to play to the arena, Ringling clowns were designed to play to a similar large and distant audience. That's why the clothes, shoes, props and faces were excessively exaggerated.
They weren't hiding behind bushes with sharp teeth, angry eyebrows and fake bloodstains to jump out in your face. They were performing classic, burlesque, baggy pants style slapstick.
Trust me, they were funny, and they tied the whole show together.
in shape, and juggling all the time to expand my performing and comedy writing abilities. Foolishly, I assumed "college" meant it must be a full four year program, and who had time for that?
Another connection to wrestling (and Vaudeville) was that there were families who'd been in this travelling based world for multiple generations. Sometimes they'd continue with the current act, and sometimes they'd do something completely different. (Many of Elvin Bale's family members, and his wife, were animal trainers.)
We got to see him live! Even from up in the arena seats, and with him getting close to retirement, he could expertly play the crowd, and draw out laugh after laugh. It was an honor to watch him work.
Aside-There are three main clown types, based on makeup and the personalities that go with them. Little was a Whiteface, Jacobs was an Auguste. The third is the Tramp, an American invention. Emmet Kelley, Red Skelton and of course Charlie Chaplain are classic examples. (Ironically, Benny Hill did some great, and very sweet, pantomime sketches as this type.) Some places list Character Clown as a fourth type. I always felt that those were other types of clown with a specific role. But what do I know? (Other than all that clown information I just vomited forth. Maybe I missed my true calling?)
I've expressed missing the non-stop spectacle of The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus through these random memories, but I still don't think I've truly captured it. The perpetual onslaught of bright and impressively unbelievable acts that came from the king of arena circuses was something you really had to be there to understand and appreciate.
Thank you for coming along in my attempt to celebrate it.
AND MAY ALL YOUR DAYS...
BE CIRCUS DAYS!