Maybe up close the outfits weren’t stitched to perfection, but from the spectator seats they were dazzling: Scarlet jackets with black pants and shiny boots, gold satin blouses, filmy sequined skirts and dashing leotards. Trapeze artists flew from rope to swing in star-spangled costumes, defying gravity while the audience gasped. The band played; hawkers hustled through the crowd selling roasted peanuts and monkey puppets; eighteen clowns and a dog piled out of a Volkswagon. The greatest show on earth.
The circus thrived in a simpler time, or at least that’s what we call it now. It’s actually not so simple to struggle to save enough money to take the family to the circus and wonder if the car will make it without a flat tire on the way. It’s not as simple as it sounds to have a grand total of five toys and wonder if it might, just might, be possible to have one of those furry monkeys on a string, or a clown mask. It only seems simpler because there were fewer gadgets and organized activities. And no TV shows. None.
Gradually life evolved into a perpetual circus. Toys of every conceivable kind are now available at Walmart. Roasted peanuts come in a can. Extravaganzas are daily TV fare and computers offer magic with a single keystroke, right in the living room.
As the barrage of glitz and action filtered into daily life, Barnum and Bailey attracted fewer and fewer people to its tent. The parade from railroad station to circus site, with elephants, prancing horses and tooting calliope, was no longer a big event; traffic later made it an impossible event. Instead, trucks drove to the grounds, unloaded without fanfare, and tents rose up for the show. Then people came … or didn’t.
I planned to go to the last big extravaganza to witness the end of an era, but not a single performance came to this part of the world for its last glorious fling. I missed it, just as I missed it last year, and the year before that. Too busy, too much traffic, too hard to park, so I had a hand in the demise of the circus, just as we all did, just as changing times did.
Terms from the Big Show – lion tamer, ringmaster, barker, bandwagon – will drop into oblivion, and the circus will become a distant legend. Its day is behind us, along with days of a wild frontier, a time when aeroplanes were big news and America was isolated from the rest of the world by two oceans. Life keeps re-arranging itself, and no matter how good the good old days sound in retrospect, there’s no bringing them back.
So goodbye, Circus, with all your glitz and glory. Life behind the scenes may not have been so terrific, but in those moments when you were on stage you sparked a thousand imaginations and spread a lot of joy. Godspeed.