Randi is on a brief leave. This column was originally published Feb. 2-8, 2017.
The sweep of history has ushered in the first woman ringmaster for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and, at the same time, swept out the entire circus, which will close in May. After 146 years in business, the circus decided to put a woman in the center ring, which might have been a step forward if the circus had a future, which it does not.
Progress cuts in myriad directions. Naturally, I’m delighted that a woman, Kristen Michelle Wilson, was chosen to be in the spotlight. But I’m also delighted that her tenure will be brief. The circus’s tent will come down forever this spring, due to rising expenses, declining audiences and protests by animal rights activists.
Ringling Brothers’ elephants were retired to a Florida sanctuary some time ago, presumably due to pressure from animal advocates and the cost of upkeep.
When the circus closes, the clowns will also take their final bow, and not a moment too soon. If you grew up when I did, the circus was a must-see, go-to event every year. It was a big deal when the elephants paraded through New York City, covered by media and hailed as an entertainment that carried a rich history and promised thrilling, freakish sideshows.
As a kid, though, I hated the circus. I never told my parents, because they seemed so invested in my “big day” at Madison Square Garden, but the whole scene felt skeevie. In the vernacular of the time, the bearded lady, the giant, the midgets and the skinniest man on earth scared the stuffing out of me. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but there was something awfully creepy, and just awful, about paying to stare at these people, who we now know suffered from various endocrine imbalances.
There was nothing fun or amusing about the tigers tormented by men with whips, or the elephants prodded into kneeling and dancing and running in a circle, end to end. There was always the sense at the circus, just as there is even today at carnivals, of some malignant force lurking beneath the face paint.
Clowns, for obvious reasons, have become a common source of anxiety among kids today. It’s about the fake face, the false smile and the unknowable person behind the mask. I know there’s a rich history of great clowns, and I’ve vacationed in Sarasota, Florida, a town that had a highly respected Clown College, a place where the Ringling Brothers circus wintered since 1927. Still, I just can’t appreciate the appeal of the greasepaint and the big shoes.
Once upon a time, when the circus came to town in the boondocks, it was a thrill and an opportunity to see something one might never see again. But today, kids raised on videos and iPhones have neither the interest nor the attention span for a circus act. The immense skill of many of the performers eludes them. They want quick. I read that Ringling Brothers, in an effort to survive, kept shortening the acts. But the entertainment value of the circus has lost relevance for today’s children.
If you read “Water for Elephants,” by Sara Gruen, you got a good story along with a history of the circus in America over the past 100 years. It wasn’t all about sparkly young women and men flying through the air, trapeze to trapeze. The dark side of the circus during the Great Depression was this: When some traveling circuses couldn’t afford to pay their workers, they threw them off a bridge before pulling in to the last stop. Animal abuse was rife; living conditions for both humans and animals were often appalling.
In modern times, conditions improved, but the basic concept of subjecting wild animals to a lifetime of captivity and forced performance has become disturbing and unacceptable. In “Water for Elephants,” Rosie the elephant is prodded with gaffs and burned with cigarettes. When she goes berserk at the end and runs a spear through her trainer’s head, we root for Rosie.
There is a theory that culture and society evolve as time goes on, that we get better and more considerate of one another and increasingly sensitized to the needs of other inhabitants of our earth and even those of the earth itself. Still, this is a theory.
Many aspects of life in 2017 challenge the concept of an evolving society. In many ways, especially politically, we seem to be falling back.
But the end of the circus is a good thing, a progressive thing. Millions are left with great memories of the Big Top and the times the circus came to town. We can hold on to the good memories and also embrace modern sensibilities that are offended by the exploitation of animals.
Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.