The Greatest Show On Earth

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I have not been to a circus since the age of two. Literally. The only exception was a small big-top show that toured small towns when I was thirteen or so. It was in Marietta, Ohio, and the circus had setup shop in a parking lot somewhere. It had a couple of elephants, one tiger, and some acrobats who failed to leave an impression.

But when I say circus, I mean the circus. I mean Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. That one. The only other one that compares would be the Shriner’s Circus, which will hit Cincinnati in about a month, playing the venerable old Cincinnati Gardens.

Nita used to take AJ every year. A fortunate booking of front row seats many moons ago allows her to get sweet seats cheap. My only memories of my foray at age two to the late, unlamented Cleveland Arena was the man on the motorcycle on the high wire, which looked really really high to my toddler eyes, and stealing cotton candy from a little girl seated ahead of us. Her father apparently thought that was funny. That said, I had little to compare going to Ringling Brothers in my forties. For starters, US Bank Arena did not exist back then, and anyway, I lived in Cleveland. And anyway, my first clear memory before age 4 is watching the moon landing.

So as we went in, I looked up at the high wire rig. Now, US Bank Arena, built shortly after Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum, is considerably larger than the old Cleveland Arena. Yet the high wire did not seem so… High. Mind you, while the old arena was a glorified gymnasium that could handle the odd rock concert in 1968, to a toddler, it was the interior of V’Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which would not bore me to tears for another 11 years. I digress.) US Bank Arena is big, even to my middle aged mind, but…

The high wire did not seem so high. I was a little disappointed.

I was not disappointed in the show. The circus is an old, old form of entertainment. It had been around for ages by the time PT Barnum created the Barnum half of Barnum & Bailey. This show, however, has to compete with pop concerts, rock concerts, the spectacle of the NFL, and the gleefully bogus blood sport that is pro wrestling. The ringmaster even came out with that “Let’s get ready to rumble!” vibe. The lighting, the music – some recorded, but most played by a live band, and the stagework would all put Lady Gaga to shame.

About half of any circus is acrobats. And acrobatics, when you watch it as tightly choreographed as the current Ringling shows (There are three on tour at any given time.), you come to realize that it’s gymnastics on steroids (the act, not the acrobats themselves) with a heightened danger of falling and an element of dance.

I also wanted to see the animals. I won’t speculate here on how they’re treated, but the animals I saw behaved as though they enjoyed working with the trainers. The horses were the most intelligent, one even “failing” a trick on cue. It did not react to being scolded, but the trainer walked over and whispered something to it between staged rants.

But it was the elephants I wanted to see. I’ve heard how, in India, trained elephants are better than horses but that wild elephants are a six-ton menace. The elephants performed well enough, but I did notice one of them needed to be coaxed, as though it may have been in a little pain. Not sure I’d want an injured elephant performing for a crowd of 30,000, especially with a 90-pound woman riding it. Still, they’re magnificent creatures.

The tigers, however, impressed me the most. They really are big cats. Big cats that can kill you with their claws or teeth, but big cats just the same. One tiger acted a little cocky in the same way some dogs or race horses will. As the last animal in the cage during the tiger act, it tossed its head as it was called up to do its tricks, then strutted out with its head up. The other cats looked like they’d just punched a clock and were off for a round of Purina Tiger Chow. Of course, there are accidents. Just ask Sigfried and Roy. But these animals were extremely intelligent and graceful in a way we don’t normally get to see them.

One might ask about the clowns. Why am I not mentioning them here? Well, clowns are a distraction. They do their thing while the crew puts together the animal cages or acrobat rigs. While some of what they do was amusing enough, I found myself drawn toward the unlighted side of the arena. What were they doing over there. It felt a little like peaking behind a magician’s curtain.

And finally, the band. During one segment (a clown segment where they did a bit about construction), the band played “Highway to Hell.” Yes, they played an AC/DC song about going to hell for an audience that was at least 1/3 children. And it sounded like something Doc Serverensin would play on the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Overall, the show had more in common with a show by, say, Alice Cooper or KISS than the old image of calliope music, clowns who look like rejects from It, and the big top. In fact, even 45 years ago, the big top was a dead piece of the culture. Every circus I’ve seen come to town (Cleveland or Cincinnati) is an arena show. And half the big rock shows I’ve seen look just like Ringling Brothers.

Sound like it, too.

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