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Whatever Happened to the Circus?

Monday 20 November 2017 at 8:44 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 16, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Whatever happened to the circus? The last time I saw a circus was on April 5, 1995, when the Allen Brothers Circus, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, came to East Bernard. I remember that the Director of the Chamber rode on one of the circus elephants in the grand march that opened the show. It was a rather large circus to come to a small town, and included a unicyclist and tight-rope walker, a lion tamer with two tigers and three lions, elephants, clowns, and three sets of acrobats, including two who did “the swing of death,” two who leaped through hoops, and a couple who performed on a giant wheel.

            Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, much smaller circuses than the Allen Brothers would come to tiny little towns like Dime Box, pitch their tent and entertain the folks in rural America. Usually such small circuses had only one or two exotic animals to do tricks and one or two “low” flying trapeze artists somersaulting in the air, and no more than one clown. But, for us, who lived a long way from any city, it was extremely exciting. The bigger circuses came to the bigger towns and cities, but in those days, what we saw was pretty astonishing to us.

            The huge and famous Ringling Brothers/Barnum Bailey Circus entertained folks in large cities like Boston, Atlanta, and New York for over a hundred years. The Ringling Brothers Circus was as American as apple pie, and, for many people, it was on the top of the list of great entertainment. They bought out Barnum and Bailey in 1919, an action that motivated their boast, “The Greatest Show on the Earth.” The Great Depression in the 1930’s hurt their ticket sales enormously, but they survived. Then, in the 1950’s, television sets became common in just about every home, and TV took some of the wind out of the circus tents. Nevertheless, the big circus continued to tour the big cities, only they gave up the tents and performed in sports stadiums and other large arenas.

            On May 21, 2017, the “Greatest Show on Earth” closed because of dwindling ticket sales and protests by animal rights groups like PETA. These groups considered having animals, like elephants, perform to be an act of cruelty. Ringling Brothers/Barnum Bailey is no more.

            The circus actually originated in ancient Rome, deriving its name from the Latin word for “circus,” meaning “circle” or “ring.” The circus began as a one-ring performance, the three-ring circus developing much later. The small circuses that came to Dime Box were definitely one-ring.

            During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the circus was probably the most loved entertainment venue in France. Many French Impressionist painters were so fascinated with the “cirque,” as they called it, that they painted more than one circus scene. Some of the most famous of those paintings were “Parade de Cirque” by Seurat, “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando” by Degas, “Au Cirque Fernando I’Encyere” by Lautrec, “Clown in the Circus” by Renoir, and “Circus Scene” by Anquetin. When he painted the circus, Van Gough seemed more interested in the audience and their reactions than the performers in the ring.

            In the early 1900’s, Picasso, during what was called his “Rose Period,” painted a large collection of circus paintings (I counted over twenty, but there were probably more), the most famous ones being “Family of Saltimbanques” (1905) and “Acrobat and Young Harlequin” (1905). Almost childlike, Picasso passionately loved the circus, and he often dressed like circus acrobats. It seemed to excite him when people would mistake him for a circus acrobat. I don’t think he ever lost his love for the circus.

            Although love for the circus, and the circus itself, seems to have died out in America, it is much alive and well in Europe today. The number one circus in Europe is the Cirque d’Hiver (Circus of Winter) in Paris. It is now located in a permanent building, and in spite of criticisms by some, they still use elephants and dogs for tricks.

            The Nofit State Circus in Wales is fun, and very different, and still performs in a tent.

            The Circus Krone in Munich, Germany, also uses a tent, and they have a zoo of over 200 hundred animals.

            The Cirque de Soleil of Canada is known for its astonishing acrobatic acts.

            Also offering performances of some of the greatest acrobatic acts in the world is the Moscow State Circus.

            So the circus is still alive and well, though not necessarily near us.


Ray Spitzenberger is a free-lance writer and artist who lives in East Bernard with his beautiful wife Peggy and spoiled cat Gatsby.

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