San Francisco, once a rough real town with families, factories and beach side roller coasters, once hosted real circuses too. It was there at the Civic Auditorium in the 1940s where I first saw a spangled parade. Name of Polack Bros. This kid was as entranced by cylindrical bags of popcorn, chameleons and funny things dangling from sticks as he was by the action down below. In hazy recall, he can still see a big cage (maybe), a few big elephants, for sure, some acrobats flying over a net, yes. And an amusing surprise — a goofy clown setting off a big cannon making a tiny noise, then lighting a tiny firecracker causing a HUGE explosion.
Circus Circa 1946, a very good year.
San Francisco, when it was a real real town with bustling waterfront ships and pre-Disney cable cars not climbing half way to the stars, thank you. My mom saw Al G. Barnes Circus on the night of April 26, 1930. It’s a scrapbook fact, for a torn reserved seat ticket stub numbered 76 and bearing a partial “C” and "No. 2" from that date, shares a page with trips she made to see stage plays at the Alcazar, Curran and Geary Theatres.
In 1930 at Barnes, mom witnessed "Persia and the Pageant of Pekin: Two Gorgeous Spectacles of Oriental Magnificence." She saw Tusko and Lotus, “the biggest blood sweating hippopotamus in captivity” She saw the Royal Lilliputians. AND the great Mabel Stark working 15 Siberian and Bengal tigers — long before PETA began throwing its toxic hissy fits. Mary Byrd Lewis sat through 28 wondrous displays in the city of my birth, most of them filling three rings and two stages with action turned by the likes of Lorraine Roos and Helen Culley, Bone Hartsell and Hazel Moss, Elmer Goddard and The Matlock Troupe.
Lucky for me that my mother, who grew up in Brooklyn, enjoyed tanbark wizards. She once told me how much she admired Lillian Leitzel. And when King Bros came to Santa Rosa in 1950, she took us to my second circus experience, this one under a real tent. Less than a year later I was sitting in an overflow audience nearly at the edge of one magical ring inside the Grace Pavilion at the Fairgrounds, riveted to Polack Bros.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey last played San Francisco under the big top on September 8, 9, and 10, 1941. When they returned seven years later, into the Cow Palace they were talked by city officials. Half the town showed up, thousands of them turned away. Only seven years later and a humbled Big Bertha was fighting for half houses, losing out to striking teamsters. That’s when I saw my first circus on cold windy Geneva Avenue -- a performance of classy perfection and radiant splendor produced by John Ringling North.
San Francisco became a very different city. Real circuses no longer welcome. Animals Rights do-gooders swarming tents and buildings with fliers and shouts and nasty looks. No wonder that Ringling-Barnum in 2008 will have stayed away for three seasons.
And now comes another fearless circus woman named Barbara Byrd, inviting if not challenging the city’s dwindling families (many of them Hispanic) to embrace a pageant that includes wild animals. Gutsy Carson & Barnes will throw up its big top at the Cow Palace next September 12-14
Maybe there are winds of change favoring what C&B still doggedly tours. Some liberal S.F. writers, rediscovering the daredevilry inherent in Cirque du Soleil's new offering, may be turning away from Cirque ballet and more open to a Carson & Barnes sampler. And this in a city with a zoo that can’t keep its four-legged creatures contained and is facing crippling lawsuits based on incredible incompetence. Parents can at least count on safety under the big top.
And the beat goes on. Onto the parking lot of the Cow Palace come September, might there be throngs of middle and lower class families anxious to experience what Carson & Barnes is about to bring them? Indeed, can our nation’s last under canvas three-ringer deliver through the political minefields of a town very different from the one that flourished when my mother went to Al G. Barnes in 1930? When she might have thrilled with pride over the spectacle of Mabel Stark presenting a cage full of performing Siberian tigers? When it was a given that tigers and their like needed to be safely secured behind wire and steel and mesh?