I’m pretty surprised that the show was ignored or watched and then ignored by most main stream media. At the top of the list, The New York Times. Defaulting to the ever-reliable Rotten Tomatoes, there are a grand total of 3 reviews, all colored in red, though two of them bear serious discoloring smudges. Compare this to 45 reviews for Ken Burns The Vietnam war.
The write ups come from The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and The Wall Street Journal. I could not access the Journal, because you must subscribe to read. I can only trust it was a real notice, not the kind of bogus con job put over by Big Apple Circus last year, quoting back its own quotes from a feature story the Journal did on the show prior to its opening — and framing those quotes in the form of an excerpt from an actual Wall Street Journal review! Yes, we/they live in desperate times.
One of many circuses snubbed by American Experience.
Well, of course, Barnum's name does not appear
From Robert Lloyd in The Los Angeles Times: “The Circus” is at times difficult to watch, because the circus, though in most respects a wonderful enterprise, has also been an awful one, particularly in its use or misuse of wild animals – many of which, more than once in this history, will perish in fires -- but sometimes in its treatment of people as well. (People, too, will perish in fires.)”
That word “awful”... feels awful.
From Verne Gay in Newsday (3 out of 4 stars, really?): "MY SAY Just to hazard a wild guess here, 'The Circus' must be the most exhaustive documentary on the circus that the TV medium has ever known, and — just to hazard another one — that's about five times too exhaustive for the average viewer.
“Do you need to watch all four hours? Not really. For an average viewers' guide, the second hour Monday (at 10) and the first hour Tuesday are the best. Meanwhile, Leitzel aficionados will want to savor the full four”
Okay, onto the program's unfortunate missteps.
Circus Reporting from the trenches
Latest issue of The Circus Report has done a bang up job in printing a wide array of feedback from circus fans and pros, 10 in all. Here are some of the comments:
Thanks to Bill Schreiber, who allayed my shock over the gruesome image of a huge elephant entrenched in chains coming out of a box car, which to the average TV viewer surely screams ANIMAL ABUSE! How glad and relieved was I to learn from Bill, recounting in Circus Report something that Slim Lewis had told him: "Most of the chain was for show and truly unnecessary for controlling him, but it made Tusko seem more formidable than he actually was." Very troubling (or spiteful ) that this context was not mentioned. Given the typical sight of elephants coming out of the cars fairly freely, did someday even ask?
Don Covington: "It also incorrectly suggested that the Ringling enterprise was the only significant circus of the day, ignoring almost all the competition.”
Maxine House: “All those wonderful tented (and Shrine) circuses were left out!”
And then comes Pittsburgh
One thing everybody seems to agree on is that the show’s abrupt ending is beyond comprehension. This will surely leave an impression with younger generations that the circus died right there.
My favorite quote, from Gary Payne: “Born in 1955, I can attest to having seen about 1,000 circus performances that apparently didn’t exist.”
Why, oh why?
Wayne McCary: “Only the producers know why they chose to end the show with the closing of the Greatest Show on Earth in Pittsburgh in 1956. That finality in the program undoubtedly gave the impression to the general public that the circus industry came to an abrupt end at that time.”
John Ringling North's first season opener, 1938
Okay, let me guess. While working on my review, I developed a profile in my mind of producer-writer-director Sharon Grimberg. I could see her coming from the New England area, where she would more likely have been exposed to the Barnum lobby, and I wondered if she might be an animal rights activist or sympathizer. After posting my review, below, I went a-goggling. I found that American Experience is based in Boston, but I could find nothing about Ms. Grimberg's personal life or politics.
I have two theories:
1. She started out intending to produce a biography of the Prince of Humbug. The one through-line through this jumbled enterprise is the name Barnum. The other showman covered were all significantly involved with him -- Forepaugh as principle rival (I'm surprised they missed the Sacred White Elephant war between the two), Coup, Costello and Bailey as partners, and the Ringlings, who kept his name famously alive. Somewhere along the way, the story got extended beyond its original focus. By then, Grimberg ran out of funding or interest, and rushed to wrap in Pittsburgh. 21 minutes for John Ringling North. Actually, deduct the minutes taken covering the Hartford fire --- North was not running the show then -- and North gets maybe a total of 16 minutes. I rest my case. A bit too far fetched? Okay, how about this:
2. Harboring a private disdain for various alleged forms of abuse under the big top, Grimberg wanted to end on a down note, sending viewers off subliminally conditioned to feel guilty about ever again patronizing a circus with animals.
Am I off the cliff? Then, the laugh’s on me.
Thank god for the DeMille film. No, they can't take that away from me.