When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it was turning out the spotlight after a 156-year run, the aura of nostalgia was so thick you could balance a family of sword swallowers on it. Newspapers were filled with pictures of circuses past, and dirges were delivered by television hosts, augmented with clips from movies like Trapeze and The Greatest Show on Earth (“Bring the children. Bring the old folks. You can shake the sawdust off your feet, but you can’t shake it out of your heart.”)
I did not join in these lamentations. Long ago, my parents took me to my first circus at Madison Square Garden. The Big Top played there every spring, ballyhooed with posters of gorgeous bareback riders, wondrous performing animals, the world’s strongest man, and the rest of its illustrious headliners. Such two-legged and four-legged celebrities had attracted crowds since P.T. Barnum packed the circus into railroad cars and toured the length and breadth of nineteenth-century America. In that benighted epoch, few of the paying customers had ever seen a pachyderm or a jungle feline. And hardly any had witnessed the vast array of showfolk in glittering costumes introduced by a barker with a megaphone, accompanied by a big brass band.
New York would seem an unlikely place for Ringling Bros. to flourish—after all, we already had Broadway, Carnegie Hall, the Bronx Zoo, and Radio City Music Hall. Yet every spring, the Garden overflowed with children, and on that particular April I was one of them.
The show began under the direction of a blaring master of ceremonies, complete with bullhorn and bullwhip. As advertised, he presented three rings with nonstop performers. Among them were dogs leaping over each other with metronomic precision; raucous clowns with red enema-bulb noses, orange hair, and squirting buttonhole flowers; big tigers and leopards baring their teeth—and then, at their trainer’s crisp command, meekly sitting on wooden stools; elephants standing on two feet and wiggling their long trunks on cue; a man balancing upside-down on one finger; a fire-eater; aerialists hovering on high wires; and male and female equestrians riding bareback, jumping on and off their horses as the musicians played at deafening volume.
Afterward, sugar-high from the consumption of pink cotton candy, I was taken on a tour of the freak show. It included the traditional bearded lady, a dog-faced boy, a couple tattooed from head to toe, a fakir who lay on a bed of nails, and various limbless and over-limbed animals.
Even my ten-year-old senses were offended. I didn’t need PETA to tell me that the tamed beasts weren’t heroic, just humiliated. Nor did I need a humorist to point out that the clowns weren’t funny; they were only strident. Or a sociologist to demonstrate the central truth of those tightrope walkers: they didn’t make life dearer, they only cheapened it. As for the freaks, even a kid could see that they weren’t extraordinary human specimens as much as a sad, distorted mirror of their audience.
I resolved never to return—an absurd and unkeepable vow. For in time, my eight-year-old daughter and her five-year-old brother, importuned by commercials and school buzz, lobbied to be taken to the Circus in the Garden. I bit my tongue and paid a scalper the customary outrageous sum for front-row matinee tickets.
The children applauded at the appropriate moments, gaped at the animals and acrobats, ate skeins of cotton candy, and peered at the curiosities. Later, they conferred out of earshot. I asked no questions, waiting for the judgment at dinner. As she served it, my wife (who had cannily scheduled a root-canal appointment that day) inquired, “Well, how did you like it?”
“The Big Top?” Lili responded airily. “It’s kind of like one of those big windup plastic trucks you see on the Saturday morning shows.”
“You get it for your birthday,” Ethan added, “and you look at it up close and it’s cheesy. It makes a lot of noise. And then it breaks.”
I don’t believe they would opt to take their children to the circus. And now, happily, they don’t have to.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images