Step Right Up

Chapter IX. All Out—Not Over

"All out and over!" calls out the ringmaster. "Everybody please leave by the front door!" But it's never really over, is it? It will happen again and again, in reality, in our memories, and in our dreams. Some of our most vivid childhood memories are associated with circus, even though we had no way then to understand the depth of its impact on us. Maybe we hadn't gone to the circus for a long time, because we thought we had outgrown it, or we didn't need it. Perhaps, cynically, we thought that we were old enough now to understand the tricks, and the shallowness of the glitz: "So what's the point?" we said. "I've seen the elephants; the leotards are stained; the clowns aren't funny any longer; and the wire isn't so high after all." But then, one day, we took our kids, perhaps because we thought they deserved to have our dreams and memories, or because we thought they needed to have the experience as a necessary part of their education. Or, maybe, we took them because we could finally admit that we needed the circus.

We began our look at the American circus by proposing that it had no single national or historical beginning. We have come to believe that as long as there have been human societies, in all the corners of the Earth, there has been some form of circus. And we end this book by proposing that there will always be circus. Simply put, we can't do without it. Even the total collapse of known civilization at the end of the Roman Empire couldn't prevent circus artists from pursuing their vocations, and there is no reason to expect that any modern society can kill off the circus any more readily. Human civilization needs the circus. All that color and noise and glitz which on one level seems to dominate the circus, somehow becomes irrelevant in our dreams, where we constantly wage the battles between our perceptions of truth and illusion. On a higher level, we find elements and images of the circus, which are far more essential to our state of mind, which bring us face to face with what it is to be a human being- a foot on a wire, or the essential humanity of the "freak" who appears so inhuman. In the circus we have found the ultimate balance, strength, and dexterity of humanness, based not on illusion but on risk.

John Steinbeck labelled it "…beauty against our daily ugliness, excitement against our boredom. Every man and woman and child," he said, "comes from the circus refreshed and renewed and ready to survive." The more automated, dehumanized, mechanized and structured our society grows, the more anesthetized, boxed-in, limited, and categorized each of us as individuals will grow; and the more we will need the circus to remind us of what is possible, and of what is essentially human. "A good circus," wrote Oscar Wilde over a hundred years ago in the English Illustrated Magazine, "is an oasis of Hellenism in a world that reads too much to be wise, and thinks too much to be beautiful."

Many people have compared the contemporary circus scene to the golden age of the American circus, or even to the circus of their own childhood memories; and they came to the conclusion that the circus is dying. They were wrong. There is plenty of good evidence to suggest that it is now even stronger than ever. Business is booming. New shows are being framed yearly. New ideas are succeeding. And circus themes continue to infiltrate the fabric of American culture: a popular Las Vegas hotel is entirely devoted to circus entertainment and décor, and even the Club Med is offering circus workshops to its clientele. What we have seen is not the death of the circus, but merely its ongoing adjustment to the temper of the times. Circus folk are not dying out; like the Roman mimes before them, they are changing and adapting, just as they must, and just as they always have.

Circus people don't think much about the past or about the long-term future. There's no point. Their thoughts are with the here and now. When Johnny Pugh of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, or Judy Finelli of the Pickle Family Circus, is asked about the future survival of their shows, they shrug their shoulders and say "Sure, we have a future." Only two time references count for circus folks: "Where are we today?" and "Where do we go tomorrow?" Consideration of the possibility of failure is absolutely out of the question. Failure can only be thought of as history; any other attitude toward it would be self-defeating, as well as a jinx. We must remember that it is the nature of circus men and women, even after repeated failures, to get back on the horse, to climb back up the rope, or to drive 200 more miles and do two more shows. Not to do so is not an option. Life must go on! "To be on the wire is life," said Karl Wallenda. "All the rest is waiting."

Section A. Circus Futures

Will the circus survive? Inevitably! ... because "The show," like life, "must go on!" Probably more than anything else, the present fad for nostalgia accounts for the recent upsurge in interest in the circus, and such fads can be brief. But the show will go on by whatever means made available to the people who have circus in their blood: "If the public needs the currently trendy nostalgia for the past," they say, "we'll do an old-fashioned show under the big top. If tenting costs grow prohibitively high today, we'll play in the coliseum. If headline performers are sick, or fall and can't go on, we'll mount another act in their place. If no one shows up to see us, we'll go on to the next town. If no one's there either, we'll start a new show." And so on. The determination—the resilience, the pluck—of these people is inspirational, and that's at least in part why the rest of us can't do without them. "The show must go on!"

If the circus will inevitably continue to survive, in what form it will survive, and under what circumstances it can thrive are separate issues. Are any of the existing shows discussed in these pages, or any others like them, equipped to become the "circus of the future"? Who knows whether any of them will even be around in another ten or twenty years. If they are, will they have changed? Most probably! Will the traditional American three-ring spectacle circus survive? In twenty years, will today's trendy one-ring shows still be unique, or will they be lost in a sea of imitators? Or will they indeed prove in the long run to have made only a brief connection to our communal soul, and have faded from our memory altogether? Will they in turn be supplanted by new and as yet unheard of approaches to circus art? There are no crystal balls here, but the guessing is fun.

One of the largest and most complicated questions looming in the minds of both circus and animal lovers today is whether future circuses will have to do without their animals? Some circus owners see "the writing on the wall," and others claim "You can't have a circus without your animals!" Recently, when the animal-less and relatively high-priced Cirque du Soleil was described to one traditional fan, he responded emphatically, almost angrily, "I'd never go see a show like that!" That's too bad. If he didn't, he'd be cutting off his nose to spite his face, and he'd be missing a good thing. If he went, he would probably miss the presence of the animals, and he might have to spend more for his ticket; but he certainly wouldn't miss the real point of going to any circus: to experience what is not part of our daily lives, what shatters our expectations. For centuries the capabilities of the human animal have fascinated spectators at circus-like performances; we don't believe people would now stop going to the circus merely because other animals might no longer be a part of those performances. The ethical questions of how well the circus is equipped to handle public education, animal breeding and care, and the issues of survival and freedom, will be best dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Some circuses will choose to skirt the whole issue, and others, if allowed, will adjust to meet the very real needs of their animals. Meanwhile, the rhetoric continues, surrounded by the certain knowledge on everyone's part that the wild animals of the world are facing a critical loss of habitat, and their very survival is at stake. Ironically, circus animal enthusiasts complaining of the "bleeding-heart do-gooders," and radical animal rights advocates who cry "cruelty to animals," may well discover that they will have to be on the same side after all.

Will future circuses be in tents or buildings? Will they emphasize the scope and spectacle of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, or the more intimate clowning and acrobatic display of the Pickle Family Circus? Will the rings and stringer seats be replaced by stages and contoured proscenium seating, as in the Circo Tihany? Will circuses grow more traditional, like Carson & Barnes, Beatty-Cole, and the many smaller tented shows? Will they grow more European, like Big Apple and Flora? Will they grow more theatrical and vaudevillian, like the Pickle? Or will they grow more political and satirical, as has Australia's famous Circus Oz, whose acrobatic and clowning routines have dealt with anti-nuclear themes?

The most accurate guess in answer to these questions is probably "All of the above!" Certainly, the circus could not be expected to stay the same as it has been, no matter how much fondness fans may feel for what is past. An awareness of the place of circus in American history, and a knowledge of what the traditional American circus was like are important parts of our education. But we can never really go home again: We can't retrieve what was appropriate to America in her frontier years and make it appropriate for her future. We can't limit the art of the circus by defining it only as what it used to be. It is much too vital to be relegated to a museum, or a mere memory in a photo album. It must have the courage to change and grow to suit the times. Whatever the public and the artists need, the circus will provide. And the adjustment cycles will inexorably continue. At times, the circus may only barely survive, as it struggles to adapt to the rarely understood forces of changing times. There will certainly be many long periods of low circus-profile and minimal activity. It has weathered such times in the past. But at other times, it will thrive.

Section B. Breaking the Barriers

Education is the key to creating an atmosphere in which the circus can thrive. The general public no longer understands just what it is that we are looking at in the circus. We've been spoiled by the high-financed glamour and technological wizardry of the movies. We don't know enough to appreciate just how difficult or how good a circus act is. The performer makes it look so easy, and we've seen a lot more difficult-looking routines performed with the trickery of a camera. In fact, we've been lied to so often by cameras and politicians that we no longer know the difference between excellence and pretense. This has become the age of cynicism, when every promise and every feat is regarded with extreme skepticism.

The result, in part, is that Americans have maintained a historical blinding prejudice which tends to make us look on all circus people as fakes and thieves. Circus people, many of us have assumed, are sleazy nomads, who arrive under cover of darkness, and leave the following night with the hard-earned savings of the middle-class American working man ferreted away in their red wagons. Recently, there was a bank robbery in Greenville, South Carolina, while a circus was playing on the campus of Furman University. On the mistaken assumption that circus people would undoubtedly be involved, officials arrived immediately on the lot to root out the guilty parties. Historically, as we have seen, American circus folk have not been guiltless in earning the mistrust of the "towners," but they have developed in their turn an equally justified mistrust of outsiders, earned from years of slander and false arrests, fights, bureaucratic red-tape, and public antagonism. They have learned to be a closed community, excluding most outsiders and relying only on themselves for sustenance and survival. "Whenever I come into a town in America, I expect to be arrested," one talented circus artist told us. "But in Europe when I go into a new town, they treat me like a king."

Part of that love-hate relationship between circus folks and outsiders is an inevitable part of the mystique of the circus, and it will never be entirely removed. After all, many circus people have deliberately set themselves outside the norms of society, because they wanted no part of them. And we who are a part of those "norms," whatever they are, need to see the artist as an outsider. Too much familiarity with the mud on hemlines, and worn knees, and other realities of life in the back yard destroys the mystique. Ironically, we must see our artists not only as superior beings, but also as lesser strangers, incapable of blending into our midst. The two visions are part of the paradox of the circus that has surfaced repeatedly in these pages.

Nonetheless, the extreme barriers between circus folk and towners are coming down, and with increased education they will drop further. This book is meant to be a part of the ongoing processes of education and enlightenment. Show owners and performers are slowly growing more eager to participate in the process of public education about the circus. There is recognition that desirable changes in public attitudes must be matched by changes in circus attitudes as well. With the dropping of traditional barriers comes a new understanding of the partnership that must exist between spectators and circus people if the circus is to be anything more than tolerated. Friendly backyard tours and insider stories in the media are opening new channels of communication, and thankfully, the old-fashioned paranoid haughtiness that characterized some circus folks in the past is gradually disappearing.

Section C. Circus Days

Other changes and experiments are finding healthy expression as well. With an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude, the "Big One" and the Circo Tihany are incorporating more and more of the polished glamour of Las Vegas, with their expensive costumes, chorus girls, and glittering lights; and the Cirque du Soleil has incorporated some Hollywood-like high-tech special smoke effects in their performances. Other shows like Carson & Barnes and Beatty-Cole are finding new innovative and viable ways to provide circuses more traditional in appearance. At the same time, smaller shows like Flora and Pickle deliberately choose to buck such popular trends and create their own unique form of circus artistry. Owners, managers, and artistic directors are eagerly seeking and trying new approaches to their art, and the result is a healthy variety of circus entertainments from which we may freely pick and choose. Underlying them all, newly identifiable vital missions have been embraced by circus folks in America who are no longer satisfied with mere survival. They are eager to establish their own credibility as professional artists with a serious purpose—not artists of the snobbish sort who appeal only to the fancy investors and the gallery set, but artists of the natural and genuine sort, who appeal to the needs of real, ordinary people. Second, they want to perpetuate the circus as a viable discipline, by establishing new standards of excellence and new opportunities for training.

For their part, better educated audiences are slowly changing too. Knowledge and understanding of what constitutes excellence in circus artistry increases its value to us as a society. As our respect for the circus grows, so does our trust. Circus sponsors now include such benevolent organizations as the SPCA, volunteer fire departments, service clubs, and parent-teacher groups, who find little that is objectionable and much that is admirable about the circus. American audiences are more and more impressed with the live performances of genuinely talented artists, who reach out to us as human beings. We view the performers with increasing respect as people who do what true artists ought to be doing everywhere: Finally, they make us smile; they amaze us; they surprise us; they wake us up; they make us see ourselves.

"May all your days be circus days!"

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