Reflections On My Final Visit To “The Greatest Show On Earth”

The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will bring down its metaphorical Big Top for the final time in May. Its business model simply does not work any more, as an executive of the arena entertainment company that owns it said recently—especially since the circus capitulated to animal rights activists and fired its performing elephants. (Ticket sales dropped by almost a third.) This was an iconic cultural institution vanishing, so I had to say farewell, and did so last weekend, when the circus came to Washington, D.C. for the final time.


1. It is still an entertaining show, even though  the Ringling brothers would never have recognized it as a circus. Several of the acts were worth the ticket price (in our cases, about 75 bucks) all by themselves.

2. The Verizon Center was about a third filled for the final show of the legendary Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. The Center itself was sparsely staffed; it took 20 minutes in line to buy popcorn. Americans, as a group, don’t care about history, culture and significant changes in it landscape any more. The circus and its components gave us imagery, lore, metaphors—“walking a tight rope,” “three ring circus,” (this one is now a two-and-a half ring circus at best), “ringmaster,” “dog and pony show,” “the big tent,” “side-shows,” “clown act,” —and “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” The nation is a little poorer and less colorful without it.

3. The public also increasingly sees little value in the mass audience experience. Live entertainment, especially family friendly varieties, were traditionally seen as an important and natural way to strengthen community ties, by bonding disparate members of society through a shared experience involving witnessing something transforming and memorable.

4. Assisting in the death of this experience is the trend of making sure all arena and stadium events  are filled with loud, never-ending, pounding electronic music that would make Phil Specter grab ear plugs. Once,  the circus’s dramatic  music consisted of drum rolls, bands and soft calliopes. If you watch the Cecil B. DeMille movie “The Greatest Show On Earth,” you will see spectators talking to each other during the acts, or shouting out to performers. Either is virtually impossible now. Conversation consists of screaming a few words repeatedly until your companion nods. This continues the cultural trend of making meaningful interaction with fellow human beings passe. How can this possibly be a healthy development for society?

I did see a lot of people texting….maybe to those sitting next to them.

5. Almost no venders were walking among the seated. A single snow cone from one of these cost $12.00.

6. This is how unintended cultural pollution takes place. The conglomerate that owns the circus also owns various ice shows, like Disney on Ice. To cut costs, it decided to employ performers from the ice shows in the circus too, meaning that instead of a sawdust path around the rings, the track around the performing areas are ice. Everyone is on skates half the time. It isn’t a bad effect: it’s faster than the old-style parades. But now the circus is an ice show.

7. The last time I saw The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was when I was 10, when my dad took me and I watched the show using his liberated high-powered Nazi field glasses, with the little swastikas on them. We received lots of interest in the glasses, since people could actually talk to us. Nobody assumed we were Nazis. Anyway, I can hardly complain about the death of the circus due to public disinterest. I didn’t help. At least I did take my kid to see the circus. He’s 22.

8. He also had a useful and depressing observation. He said that nothing he saw could impress him very much, because he had seen equivalents on TV or YouTube many times before. True, he hadn’t seen them live and up close, but still: electronic media is  robbing  humanity of the capacity for wonder.

9. I can’t really argue against the elephant ban. Though the circus had greatly cleaned up its formerly deplorable treatment of the beasts, there was no way to house and travel with them humanely. The same is true of the big cats, but boy, watching the classic animal trainer act, with 14 lions and tigers, was thrilling. How will humans ever again see these beautiful animals active and uncaged? Why will they care about preventing their extinction if they are only abstract images and videos from now on? Zoos and circuses represent a utilitarian trade-off, and society’s assessment of the right balance has changed dramatically, and for circuses, fatally. Zoos may be next.

10. A stark lesson in cognitive dissonance: The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, which for decades used head clown Lou Jacobs as its symbol, minimizes the visibility of clowns to the vanishing point. The clowns are a small troupe, and act like rodeo clowns. The costuming and props are minimal. There is no little car, no extended clown skits. Moreover, Lou Jacobs’ style of clown, the classic whiteface clown, is gone. So is the Emmet Kelly-style “tramp” clown, presumably because it is politically incorrect. All that are left are the “auguste clowns,” like these…

Looks like the cast of “Godspell” to me.

This is how the cognitive dissonance scale works: whiteface clowns can’t be funny, because the associations with them are now sinister. I grew up with whiteface clowns like Bozo, Ronald McDonald, Lou Jacobs, and Clarabell the Clown on “Howdy Doody.” Then came John Wayne Gacy, the real life serial killer clown, and Tim Curry’s terrifying Pennywise in “It.” Adults, like “Seinfeld’s  Kramer, displaying fear of clowns became a running gag, and kids got the message.

Result: Send off the clowns.

11. Few clowns, no elephants, ice instead of sawdust--at what point does the circus cease being a circus? It’s like the Tin Man. He kept chopping off parts of his body, and they were replaced by tin. At some point, he’s not human any more.

12. Someone messed up the kids-adult balance in the Greatest Show on Earth by deciding to frame what is essentially a vaudeville revue within an idiotic story featuring the Ringmaster battling an evil Space Queen named Tatiana across the galaxy for captured circus acts. This involved garishly lit spaceships sliding around the ice, some nonsense about a magic telescope, and various pyrotechnics, terrible acting and a predictable climax where the evil Tatiana decides to join forces with the Ringmaster, be Good, and create the GREATEST SHOW IN THE UNIVERSE!—which will go out of business in a month. I’m sure this was riveting to, say, the five-year olds, but the vast majority of the spectators were not five.

13. Another bad choice: the elephants were replaced by a pathetic petting zoo act featuring two donkeys, two alpacas, two goats and two llamas, who were all too dumb to do much of anything. All this did is point up what had been lost.

Circuses still survive elsewhere, especially in Mexico and Europe,  though the pompous, New Age Cirque du Soliel shouldn’t count. The U.S., however, has lost its biggest, most famous, definitive circus. which, based on what I saw last weekend, had been lost already. It is a lesson in how traditions and institutions that we assume are strong and will last forever can vanish, casualties of random, unrelated factors, changes in the culture elsewhere, apathy, bad decisions, bad luck, and perhaps most of all, because those entrusted with keeping those traditions and institutions healthy forget why they are important and worth preserving.

It is  a frightening lesson, a widely applicable one, and we ignore it at our peril.


35 thoughts on “Reflections On My Final Visit To “The Greatest Show On Earth”

  1. Christ… I remember when I was really young, my parents took me to the circus and I got to ride the elephant. I remember the cage-harness thing they used was too big for me because I was probably younger than the intended riders, and it was painfully uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. How many millenials can say they’ve SEEN an elephant?

    And the things that reminds you of…. I got to ride one, but my parents got a close encounter too. We lived three blocks down from the fairgrounds, and one of the elephants ran away from the circus during some kind of vet shot, she ended up in our front yard. My parents still have pictures of the massive footprint craters in the grass.

  2. I lived for 5 years in Peru, Indiana also known as “The Circus Capital of the World.” For years, many of the great traveling circuses wintered there including Ringling Brothers and Hagenbeck-Wallace. The International Circus Hall of Fame is located there and every year in July there is a Circus City Festival and Parade. The Peru Amateur Circus performs putting on quite a good show with performers from ages 7 to 21. No elephants but a great local tradition.

  3. It was American Circus Day on April 3rd. I imagine some of the smaller circuses will hold on for awhile. Still, I imagine most of the kiddies would rather go to Disneyland (where it now costs over $100 for an adult to get in) or perhaps Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. Thank you pc jerks and corporate managers for destroying an American Institution.

  4. I never really enjoyed the circus – primarily the animals content. Several times I went as a child to the old Boston Garden, but the animal stench and treatment was enough to kill it off. I am just not fond of the use of animals either in a circus or zoo – and, yes, I can understand the zoo aspect in save the species argument.

    I took my granddaughter to Circus 1903 in Boston a few weeks ago. An indoor presentation with a faux elephant that was right out of the stage version of Lion King (I hated that show). The show was fairly well done, but certainly not up to the traditional three-ring of my youth.

    I have attended the Cirque du Soleil and found it interesting – maybe a step up from a stage production of Pippin.

  5. I went to a Circus once; I never went back.

    Went to Sea World and the Chicago Aquarium once; I’ll never go back.

    I’ve been to a Zoo a couple of times; I’ll never go back.

    I had a huge salt water aquarium once; I’ll never have another of any size.

    One of these days I’d like to go on a real African safari, scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef, take a Polar Bear excursion, live in the wild and hike around Kodiak Island for an entire summer, and fly with migrating geese in an ultra light.

    Are you noticing a pattern?

        • Bear tastes great but I also hear that Eco-Tourist eaten by Bear stew is rather tasty.

          P.S. The Eco-Tourists I’ve met don’t like me very much, they especially dislike the display and usage of my firearms.

          • Eco-Tourists tend to be stringy and add little flavor or nourishment to the Bear stew. On the other hand, if you are are out for bear and don’t care to track very far, just capture an E-T (a show of firearms is all that is necessary), start an argument by denying global warming, and tie it to a stake near your encampment. It will continue talking for hours whether you are there or not.

    • I endorse your desire for an African safari. The value of the dollar has fallen so far that it is quite a bit more expensive than it was when I was going. I have been on five in various countries in the sub-Saharan component of the continent. Humble Talent noted the size of the elephant footprints above and I just have to say that you have to see it to believe it. I was bow hunting for cape buffalo in Mozambique in an area with quite a few elephants – we were wading through swampy areas tracking a bachelor group of buffalo when I stepped into an elephant footprint that was hidden by the swamp water. I actually went into that footprint so deeply that my chin was at the top of the water level.

      Tons of stories. Many of them pretty unbelievable unless you have been in the African bush.

      • My daughter is a teacher who specializes in Autism. She decided on a career change and just finished nursing school and passed her exams. I promised to take her on a vacation to either Australia or South Africa and the S.A. trip would also be a safari once she graduated. I tried to say I meant the San Diego Zoo safari, but didn’t work. I had tried to say I meant a trip to Outback Steak House for Australia, but that didn’t work. The only redeeming feature is the trip to Africa is on Emirates Airlines and through Dubai. I love skyscrapers so on the way back I will plan on a two day stay. I will soon start a Go Fund Me page.

      • This will show some bias, it’s earned but it’s still bias; but, I just won’t take my entire immediate family to areas of the world where westerners are no longer viewed favorably and some view them as hostages or some kind of target practice and I’m not allowed to bring an additional platoon with me to shoot back; I was in the Army and I do like to be prepared. Relatively speaking, compared to most of the western hemisphere, I just don’t feel like the majority of Africa is a safe place for taking my whole family right now. Why do I say that, I’ve never been there; I have a friend who grew up in Kenya and Ethiopia, traveled all over the continent, legally immigrated here about 15-18 years ago, became a citizen; his family back there still travels all over the continent and tells him it’s getting less and less safe for those with United States passports to visit, there is an underlying trend that tourists don’t get to see that’s becoming very unfavorable towards US citizens.

        I’m absolutely sure there will be some that will say otherwise; but I think I’ll give that one a few more years and hopefully the tides will begin to turn.

        A nice tour of Australia is looking like a mighty nice alternative these days.

        • There is plenty of truth regarding the stories you hear about danger in Africa. My experience is probably a bit out of date, but I only felt insecure while in a city on my way out to the bush. Once in the bush, I only felt threatened by some of the critters we encountered.

          I was in Mozambique shortly after their civil war ended and I had trackers that were from both sides of the recent conflict. They were no longer interested in fighting each other at that time, but you could surely see how that could heat up again quickly while you were concentrating on hunting.

          One time when I was in South Africa, I got picked up at the J-burg airport and my driver gave me a handgun and advised me that if someone ran into us with their car, we should be prepared to fight our way out of the situation. That was the last time that I was there – the first time I was there was only about a year after the end of apartheid and the people I encountered in Johannesburg could not have been friendlier. Make of that what you will.

        • Of course, they said that because they were opposed to Teddy – not to hunting. It would be hard to find a greater conservationist than TR.

            • Yep – at that time in history, there were professional ivory hunters that would kill 500+ elephants per year – sometimes more. Had to satisfy the desires of those civilized folk that wanted keyboards for their pianos and billiard balls on their tables.

                • We went through very similar periods here in the US with the Bison and with market hunters. Our definition of hunting changed quite markedly. Hunters today are, largely, much more interested in the maintenance of species than anyone else. Perhaps for selfish reasons, but it would be difficult, if not impossible to find any group that dedicates a larger amount of assets towards conservation than hunters.

                  • It’s just large scale loose contract ranching is all.

                    It’s like cattlemen are concerned about maintaining their herd populations. Is it selfish or is there are market for that source of calories?

    • Went to Sea World and the Chicago Aquarium once; I’ll never go back.

      Sea World will probably go the way of the circus soon, no loss there. The Shedd Aquarium is nice to visit once but in no way compares to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, spend a day there, it might change your mind. ,

  6. While I enjoyed the show myself as I i was also in attendance with you! I was disappointed in several aspects:

    ♦The staging of the clown acts cheated a full third of the audience of a clear view.
    ♦ The attempt to tell a story. The script would have been insulting to a first grader! The popularity of narratives to circuses is a recent development that should only be used if it works. It did not in this case! Many other circuses do this well if you don’t you cheapen the show.
    ♦ The use of hippodrome the parade effect was lost due to the use of skaters, as it went by so fast it did not allow for the growth of expectations. But since the elephant in the room was there was no elephant in the room, this was probably an attempt to hide the glory being lost!
    ♦ concessions and souvenirs tradionally the circus made buck here, but the crew both from the venue and the circus were lack luster in keeping the line moving and hawking their wares. The fact that the cotton candy Guy never made it to our section and you had to go fight vendor lines. They use to be aggressively fun in their sales. It seemed like they were ready to go. Sorry guys you got a month left.
    But their were many elements that were as wonderous as they should be!

    ❤️The Ringmaster Iverson was as majestic as always. Even with the rediculus atempt at a story.
    ❤️The space walkers were fun to watch. New twist on a classic routine.
    ❤️Alexander Lacey best animal trainer- even better hen his father and mother! The legendary Martin and Susan Lacey. She had always been my favorite big cat trainer till now!
    ❤️TheTorres Family masters of the globe of death, family keeps getting bigger!
    ❤️Who doesn’t love the flying trapeze! This act was everything you would expect! The fact that was made up of many different artists from differing training traditions make how seamlessly they worked brilliant.
    ❤️The Cossack riders brilliant at always. The horse acts are the oldest of circus acts. This tradition helps keep the feel of an old fashion circus!

    While we are losing the greatest show on earth, and yes Jack we lost it a while ago this circus paled to even some of the shows currently touring. Most circuses in this country, Canada, and the U.K. Are abandoning animal acts. Even though most circus animals have been breed for generations in captivity. More circuses are adding a narrative as cirque du soleil Has made this seem necessary it can be wonderful or as in this case tragically out of place!
    Their are still scores of circus around the World, and two dozen here in the United States.

    Fans of circus check out
    The art a majesty of the circus is more alive in some of the smaller shows!
    Just had to share- Rip (Boeboe) Claassen Boss Clown Impressario
    The term is boss clown!

    • I’m happy to see that the circus is still alive. I’d love to take my kids (the youngest is one) to a traditional circus once they’re a little older and was worrying that they might be late for the show. It may involve a bit of a roadtrip, but I’d love them to experience the thing themselves.

  7. My dad took me to the circus when I was maybe six or seven. I couldn’t focus on much of anything, the three rings offered too much input for my brain. The highlight, for me, was when my dad bought me a chameleon to take home. (Turned out to be an American green anole, but I didn’t know that till years later.)

    Made a big mistake. Next day, took my chameleon outside and placed him near a red ant hole so I could watch him eat the ants. Oops!. Swarm of ants attacked him, biting him on all sides, and, right before my little eyes, dragged him down into the nest. I still feel bad.

    Aura Wilming on Medium saw my comment about clowns and she made a comment about my comment which appears to be a correction to Jack’s comment. (Got that?) Best to just list the pieces in order.

    Professional Clowns Are All Kinds of Pissed About the ‘IT’ Remake
    Clowns say the film will only further diminish their imperiled profession

    My comment on the above article…

    Laura’s comment on my comment…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.