Out and About (Sort of): Curtain Closes on Circus by Howard Freedlander

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A 146-year-old tradition that once defined family entertainment at its best came to a nostalgic end the past Saturday at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. My wife and I joined thousands of others to bade farewell to the storied Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

It was sad in so many ways. Absent elephants that once symbolized the “Greatest Show on Earth” and profits that kept this famous entertainment vehicle on view throughout our nation, Ringling Bros. declared an end to its deficit-laden business model. Understandable, but emotionally painful as well.

It’s become a cliché to say that Americans experience many demands on their entertainment dollars. Ringling ticket sales have declined for years. Loss of the highly popular elephants due to complaints from animal rights activists exacerbated an already fragile business model.

Just think about it. In 1871, the high-tech entertainment world in which we now live would have seemed like science fiction. Family recreation had no electronic dimensions. A circus with its fantastic variety of acts, often thrilling and dangerous, but always colorful, compelled the attention of families undistracted by TV or radio or computers or smartphones or video apps.

We can’t go back to a simpler time. We can’t dwell on nostalgia. The past is just that, for better or for worse. Public taste changes.

The Ringling Bros. circus filled the seats on Saturday afternoon, mostly with young families and a smattering of grandparents who needed their fix on childhood memories. No one was disappointed.

What amazed me was that the circus I viewed Saturday had little resemblance to what I recalled about the Big Top of yore. Ironically, it had a modern twist, with the theme based upon space travel. I was taken aback. While Ringling Bros. has worked to add modernity to its show, including motorized cycles traveling speedily within an enclosed metal cylinder, the changes were to no avail.

My reading of several articles about the demise of Ringling Bros point to the high cost of offering two traveling editions employing about 500 people and transporting by train a mini-city. As noted, ticket sales have been falling. As I read, smaller circuses still are profitable.

Royal Farms Arena seemed sadly inadequate to me, particularly for a grand, historic show taking its last bow. It was small. Seats were small and cramped, as if on a Southwest Airlines aircraft. The ceiling is relatively low. And the circus had one ring.

Tigers and lions are always a treat, still obedient to their intrepid trainer. The clowns still provide a laugh or two, but it just seemed half-hearted. The ringmaster was mediocre, perhaps because either he enunciated poorly, or my hearing has diminished. I didn’t expect to see ice skaters nor so many stunts on ice.

Despite my critical comments, I felt drawn to the circus, perhaps due to its link to my childhood. A run of 146 years, spanning two world wars, economic downturns and untold cultural changes, is a long one. While the Feld Family, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, modernized the show, it no longer could withstand the high operating costs and diminishing ticket sales. Loss of the signature elephants, which symbolized the circus to young and old, was the final blow.

My grandchildren will see smaller circuses. So this form of family entertainment will continue on a reduced scale. The drama and romance of the renowned Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be history.

Accepting the inevitability and even desirability of change, I left Royal Farms Arena Saturday afternoon feeling a tinge of sorrow for the final act of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Letters to Editor

  1. Sarah K. Porter says:

    Thoughtful piece on how times do change. Even as a kid, while I was always excited by the circus, I felt a little uncomfortable watching the animal acts … there was always a tinge of sadness (except for the dogs, who seemed like they’d perform all day and night if they weren’t loaded into the clown wagon and wheeled out from under the Big Top). For families, there’s still Disney on Ice and Cirque du Soleil, where performers are merely human but there is plenty of pizzaz – acrobatics, music, lighting, special effects, wild costumes, etc. Then there’s Renfest over in Annapolis, and for animal fans, county ag fairs, horse shows and the occasional weekend open-house type festival held by breeders of llamas and alpacas and other unusual creatures. Maybe the end of the circus era will encourage parents to take their kids to these smaller occasions, or even to some of the better zoos, including Salisbury, where animals can be seen and appreciated in a more natural (or at least less unnatural) setting?

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