The season about to end began on a date that will live in big top infamy: January 14, 2017. On that day, Kenneth Feld announced that he was closing down both units of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and sending them permanently to the barn. So, it took a multi billionaire to run Ringling off the road. The irony astounds: A big top, and not just any big top, going down with plenty of money still in the till. Simply incredible. Someday, the truth behind a lame blame game may come out. And maybe they will make a movie of it.
Just when the Brits are gearing up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of horse rider Philip Astley’s dashing entrance into public performing — a move that would soon give rise to the modern circus — Americans are wondering if they are witnessing the death of their own. Say it ain’t so!
Why Ringling still matters. The show’s relative size and supremacy, compared to all other shows out there, epitomized a near-indestructible force of American culture. A still-thriving industry. Splashy television ads alone symbolized to millions of Americans at least the illusion of endurance. The Greatest Show on Earth would be with us forever, promised a more passionate Kenneth Fled only a year before to The New York Times.
So disproportionately vital had Ringling-Barnum become to public perceptions of the industry’s well-being that, without it, other circuses are already suffering.
Trickle down publicity
Circus Vargas co-owner Nelson Quiroga told Alex Smith of Circus Report that, when he played in the Bay Area around the same time that Ringling was also in town, he got a good boost in ticket sales from his proximity to the Feld ad campaign. But no longer. “It hurts us ... Circus gets into people’s minds, somewhere, they may not even go to Ringling but it’s in their mind when they drive by and see our tent, many times, they come. This year they thought it was over. All circuses. So attendance dropped for a while.”
How savvy an observation. Many with a shrug dismiss the demise of the Big Show as not all that important. Others will pick up the slack, they assert. That’s a mighty long and wide slack to pick up.
When I am asked if the circus is dying, my answer is always the same. If you are asking me, will there be jugglers and rope walkers, daring acrobats and somersaulting flyers a hundred years from now? Of course there will. Individually they will live on –- but in what form, I can not say.
So then, ask me, is Circus Circus in Vegas a circus? No, it is not. Is a night at the symphony with a few circus acts thrown in between the woodwinds and the strings, a circus? No, it is not. Neither are many other clever incarnations, however well intended. They may contribute to whatever some future genius may do to reinstate the form essential: Acrobats on the ground and in the air; performing animals in the rings,clowny characters who are us. Do you feel a musty antiquity in my definition? Am I myself a purist morphing into a fossil?
Can a surgeon make it right again?
To be or not to be?
So, where are we at this moment? There are some out there, more pessimistic than I, who believe that the nail in the coffin has already been driven. “How do you revive square dancing,” asks Anonymous. In fact, I did not know of square dancing ever having gone away.
Out-of-work elephant trainers may find a second career as pachyderm puppeteers
On the screen, the new film about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, faced with blistering reviews from half the critics, yet “blew away” my family relatives n Luray VA. Audience reactions, as rated by CinemaScore, totaled a solid A. If only its climactic scenes had allowed into the action elephants on parade, so integral to Barnum’s actual fame after he and James Bailey added a third ring in 1881 and called their concoction the Greatest Show on Earth. Instead, the pachyderms in mass are missing, and even then, PETA is back breathing fire at all parties remotely responsible, calling for a boycott of the film, blasting away at the legacy of alleged animal abuser, P.T. Barnum.
If only the film had dared to embrace the thrilling guts of Barnum’s ultimate show biz triumph. Obviously, the producers were too afraid to face truth of what circus was then: Exotic, messy and muscular, gloriously alive with incredible death defying feats, and tense-to-inspiring encounters between man and beast.
As we enter 2018, the most famous show biz slogan - GSOE - is now only the subject of a recent lawsuit by Kenneth Feld claiming trademark infringement against singer Kid Rock and Live Nation for using it. I’ve heard others lately refer to their wares as greatest shows on earth. Me wonders with a grin: In order to validate the value of the title in court, might the Felds have to put it back into legitimate use? It's okay to laugh.
Bring on 2018
A new season ahead under new managements. 2018 will tell us how successful the new BAC owners are. They open a “national tour,” not down in Atlanta, as Anthony Mason spun it, but in a town some 26 miles north called Alpharetta Pop: 63,000+ The run to last four weeks. Long sigh. Really?
Jim Judkins, the new owner of Kelly Miller Circus, having picked up the title from the departing House of Ringling (dogged traditionalist John Ringling North II, shot down by Illinois banning exotics), promises some kind of a new day. We’ve been promised many a new day by others before. And we continue to believe.
Why not? Pray for another Astley or Barnum — or for a cool surgeon-turned-showman making it big in a second act career.
And don't give up on Johnny Pugh, who only needs 350K to put Cole Bros. Circus back on the road. The road he wants to keep traveling may be the most practical of all. Pray, too, for Johnny, for a well-deserved miracle.
Other than that -- HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
Travel with Showbiz David through over fifty years of American circus history in his acclaimed new book, Big Top Typewriter: My Inside Adventures through The World of Circus
Now available on Amazon in paper and kindle.