Step Right Up
Chapter I. Ladies and Gentlemen, Step Right Up!
"Cotton candy! Popcorn! Snow cones! Soda pop! Hot dogs!" "Right this way, Ladies and Gentlemen, right this way! Don't be afraid to step right up!" "Get your Souvenir Programs here! Buy 'em while they last!" "Souvenirs! Balloons!" "Peanuts! Hot roasted peanuts! Get 'em right here!" "Ladies and Gentlemen, and Children of all Ages, the circus is about to begin!"
It's irresistible, isn't it? All that noise, all those smells, and all that color. Magnificent, and beautiful—and a little bit frightening. There are all those strange people and animals, and all those painted faces. The unpredictability of the clowns, the enormity of the elephants, the roar of the big cats, the dizzying height of the big-top peak from which the trapeze hangs: it's all more than a little overwhelming. We go in anyway, full of joy and anticipation, but perhaps clutching the hand of a parent or a child just a little more firmly. If this is to be our first exposure to the circus, we have no idea what to expect. We are just "First of May," the circus term for a greenhorn at this whole experience. However, most Americans do have some experience with the circus, at least as spectators, and all but a few of us have toyed with the concept of "running away with the circus." "First of May" or not, we have come because we need it. It's been a change of pace—something to lift us out of the ordinariness of our lives.
Many of us for one reason or another haven't been to the circus in a long time—perhaps since our parents took us as children. We may think we've forgotten what it was like, but the sounds and images and smells of the circus are a part of our heritage and our collective memory. Sensory memories are far more direct a path to who we really are than remembered thoughts, ideas, or words. It's not the clever words, the funny lines, or the meaningful dialogue from a good movie or play that seem to stick with most of us; it's the images, and the sounds. Words we must struggle to understand, but smells, noises, and pictures we can simply experience. The senses become the substance of our dreams.
If we seem to have forgotten the smell of the circus, it takes only a few instances to make it all come tumbling back: ripe horse sweat; sweet hay mixed with pungent elephant dung; fresh sawdust; and the oily mustiness of waterproofed canvas. That sour aroma of canvas alone can still call up a multitude of reminiscences associated with our last trip to the tented circus—even up to 1988, when the last American, real, canvas, major big-top was finally folded up for good.
Most of us can probably still taste the same stale popcorn drowning in fake butter that first passed our mouths years ago while the circus band blared, or the mustardy hot dogs which went to war with our stomachs. Could we really ever forget the smell, or the taste, or the gritty, sticky texture of the circus' most popular treat, for instance? Cotton candy was originally called "Fairy Floss," when it was first invented in 1900 by Thomas Patton. But none of that matters to the amazed child inside each of us, as the pink or blue spun-sugar magically disintegrates and disappears on the tongue in less time than it takes for that acrobat to complete a quadruple somersault high over our heads.
There are thousands of such memories. Once we have experienced them, we will never forget the trumpet of the elephant, the changing color of the chameleon, the agony of a burst balloon, or the heart-stopping fall into the net of the perfect man-on-the-flying-trapeze. We'll remember the time when that clown hit Dad over the head with his inflated baseball bat; or the time when little sister spilled her purple snow cone down her brother's neck and no one yelled at her for it; or when Mom missed the whole act with the lions in the cage because she didn't dare open her eyes. And we'll remember the sticky hot summer day when we were allowed to visit the back yard; we saw the wire-walker in his tights, torn and stained at the knee in the light of day, and the unshaven boss elephant man without his shirt, all paunchy, grouchy, and smoking a cigarette.
The circus has always been one of the most popular forms of public entertainment in the world. It's hard to conceive of just how popular it was in its American heyday. America grew up with the circus. Whole towns shut down on circus day—schools, shops, and offices—an occasion when everything but fantasy and excitement stood still. The day the circus came to town was every bit as memorable to us as Christmas, the Fourth of July, and our own birthdays.
The circus is not, however, all memories and past tense. The convenient and regular appeal of television and the extravagance of the movies may have lessened its impact on society as a whole for the time being, but the circus is still very much with us. The largest entertainment empire in the world today remains the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus; they are once again in the process of expanding their circus activities and widening their concepts, and their business is thriving. The Ringling show is but one of the well over fifty circuses that continue to travel throughout America every year, many of which still play under a tent. In 1989, reports abounded that the box offices of these shows had seen ever-increasing ticket sales, and that, despite appearances, more people are going to the circus than ever before. New circuses were being born, and new concepts and ideas for the circus were being successfully tried.
In periods throughout its history, the circus has been through many cycles of lean years. Weather, wars, economic hardships, cut-throat competitions, and tragic accidents have always plagued its existence. Often the circus has not been deemed fashionable or wholesome entertainment, although even so it may be the only art form in the world which has never been subject to censorship. As a result of all of this, many circuses have gone broke, and many circus entertainers have gone hungry. But never in known human history have circus-like entertainments been entirely driven out of business.
Thirty years ago, at the bottom of the current cycle, economic conditions in America were once again threatening to finish off the circus industry, and doom-sayers were reporting the imminent end of the circus as a form of entertainment. But the circus, as always, has hung on by its proverbial bootstraps. While many people apparently remain unaware that the circus is thriving, it is, and it will continue to do so. There are signs that people reared on the impassivity of television are thirsting for a return to the live entertainment arts. People seem to be growing tired of the shallow world of make-believe. They want to see real people, performing real and genuinely challenging feats. Today, despite the high cost of fuel, which has always plagued the circus, and despite the now soaring insurance rates and bureaucratic red tape associated with various permits, we may in fact be on the edge of a new circus renaissance. At the very least, the circus remains deeply entrenched in the culture of America.
Few of us are aware of just how thoroughly the circus has permeated every facet of our civilization. Over the years, it has become a part of our technology, our language, and our art. Circus is ingrained in our imagination, in our collective memories and dreams, and even in our most basic fears.
Section A. Innovations
The circus is certainly a part of the technological history of our country. In 1879, "The Great London Circus! Sanger's Royal British Menagerie, with Cooper, Bailey & Co.'s Famous International Allied Shows" advertised the first major popular demonstration of the dazzling electric light. For the September 26 performance of the show in Rockford, Illinois, the circus bill talked of "Creating a spectacle of most entrancing loveliness, ravish beauty, and supernatural splendor; transforming the very earth into a Paradise of Bliss, and carrying the imagination to the Realms of Eternal Heaven. It brings to the soul of every human witness a sense of imperishable ecstasy and enduring charm, and it gilds every object within a radius of two miles, animate and inanimate, with a subdued enchantment that realizes in every intelligent person the silvered dreams of beauteous fairyland." Bailey called the electric light "Heaven's own gift to earth of lightning." It illuminated far more than his 420,000 square feet of canvas; it illuminated the imaginations of the American people and created a thirst for electricity in the home. In 1897, there were three movie theaters in the entire United States: one in New York, one in Chicago, and one in the Ringling Brothers Circus, a black tent which showed the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight. The year before, and twenty years before the horseless carriage was commonly seen on the streets of America, the Barnum & Bailey Circus paraded a Duryea automobile. But of all the technological wizardry invented and popularized by the circus, it was the logistical system of rail travel that had perhaps the most far-reaching implications. When the Barnum & Bailey show toured Europe at the turn of the century, the German army were eager students of the circus's methods of loading and unloading flat cars rapidly and with maximum efficiency. The American army quickly followed suit, and soon the two most powerful military forces in the world were both modelling their entire transportation systems on the highly organized methods they had learned from the circus.
Section B. Language
The circus has also been made an intrinsic part of our very language, providing us with words which we may no longer even associate with the circus. A jumbo-sized object, used to describe anything larger than expected, is perhaps one of the best examples of circus linguistic influence. The word "jumbo" comes from the nickname of the oversized African elephant displayed from 1882 to 1885 in the Barnum & Bailey Circus. That lovable "ponderous pachyderm" sent Americans into a tailspin of Jumbo-phoria that would put 1989's Batman craze to shame. "White-Elephant Sales," used to describe items reduced in price because no one wants them, are so-named because of the nineteenth-century "White Elephant War" between Barnum & Bailey and a rival circus, from which the public came away with the belief that all white elephants were hoaxes.
"Rain or shine" is now a common expression in our language, but we can trace its origin to advertising in the era when circuses first played under canvas big tops. Some of us can remember our father impatiently clapping his hands to get us to hurry into the car at the beginning of a family outing: "Let's go! Let's get this show on the road!" he used to plead. Or conversely, when his children got a little too rambunctious in the car near the end of the trip, and he wanted us to calm down, he would warn, "Hold your horses, now! We'll get there." The first expression clearly comes from the anxious call of the circus manager at the end of a long day of performances and packing, eager to get his wagons rolling towards the next stand in the next town. But "Hold your horses"? Why, we wondered, was Dad worried about our horses? We didn't have any horses! Once again, the expression derives from an old circus call: "Gentlemen! Hold your horses! The elephants are coming!" It was intended to protect onlookers or passersby on horseback, when the elephants were about to bring up the end of a circus parade. Horses tended to panic at the sight and smell of an elephant in the early days of the circus; so when elephants were nearby and the warning call was heard, wise horse owners held on tight to the reins, soothing their mounts' excess anxiety.
When a politician announces his candidacy for office by "throwing his hat in the ring," he is following in the shoes of Woodrow Wilson, who did so literally in 1916: Wilson began his bid for reelection when the Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Washington, by throwing his hat into the center ring. One final example here also has its source in a political candidacy. When Dan Rice was parading his circus through the streets, while seated atop the leading bandwagon, he shouted down to his friend Zachary Taylor, "Come on up here where the people can see who's going to be their next president! Get on the bandwagon!" In the course of the next chapters, we'll find many other examples of how the circus has insinuated its way into our daily language.
Section C. The Arts
The circus has become the preoccupation of many of the world's finest businessmen, artists, and craftsmen. Some claim that it is merely a commercial enterprise, designed only to take as much money as possible from the wallets of its spectators. Most circus folks would say that is patent nonsense. Certainly the circus is far more than a commercial entertainment business. While some contemporary American circuses are strictly commercial self-supporting organizations, others are not-for-profit corporations, designed primarily to serve as non-commercial "artistic" enterprises.
However it is organized or described, the circus exists primarily for the display of the performer and the amazement of the audience. Its function as a money-maker ranks only after those essential ingredients. Performers, owners, technicians, and workers do what they do not because they want to get rich, but because they choose to amaze—despite the difficult lifestyle imposed on them by that choice, and often despite incredibly low financial returns. No one whose primary motive in life is to make money stays long with the circus.
In its own way, then, the circus lays claim to being an art form which demands to be treated with the same attention, love, and respect as our literature, fine art, music, and theatre. It certainly does not deserve the haughty dismissal of a public which thinks of art as only something to hang in a gallery or ponder from the comfort of a velvet-upholstered arm chair. Some of the best creative minds in the world have failed to come up with any consistent definition for what or why art is, and no such lofty attempts will be made here. At any rate, for most circus folk, such questions are irrelevant. If the circus is art, it is food for the soul of the common man, as Peter Schumann of the Bread & Puppet Theater suggests: "It is like good bread, and green trees." If it is art, it is cheap, and primitive, and soothing. And if it is art, it is unlike theatre art, which is a representation rather than a presentation. Theatre by nature pretends to be something it is not —"truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion," as Tennessee Williams contends in the opening to his masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie. The circus, on the other hand, is a direct presentation of the truly unusual, the best of genuine human and animal behavior: truth without artifice or pretense.
Artists and craftsmen have always been a part of the circus, and in return the circus has provided the subject matter for many a fine artist and artisan whose imaginations have grown preoccupied and fascinated with its scope and colorful appearance. Fine model craftsmen have spent entire lifetimes capturing the essence of the circus in their work. An entire organization, Circus Model Builders International, exists to serve the 1,500 members for whom building model circuses is a profession or a major hobby, and they publish a bimonthly magazine called Little Circus Wagon. Among the many superb models on public display in the United States is one which took sixty years of labor by William Brinley to create and which includes more than 3,000 hand-carved objects. It's now on display at the newly reopened Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The largest such display is the impressive three-quarter-inch scale layout of Howard Tibbals, now on exhibit at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. One-eighth-inch scale circus models have been known to take over the garages and basements of hundreds of hobbyists around the country.
From its earliest beginnings, the circus has been a subject for treatment by prominent artists fascinated by the human truths it could reveal. Alexander Calder's elaborate wire and metal sculpture Circus resides at the Whitney Museum in New York. Many paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse's Sword Swallower, Auguste Renoir's The Clown, and Georges Seurat's La Parade and Le Cirque underscore the fascination of artists for the surreal qualities of the circus. The painter Fernand Léger wrote that "The ring is freedom. It has neither beginning nor end." Pablo Picasso was perhaps the most famous artist of the circus; he was frequently to be found in the audience at Paris's Cirque Medrano, and several of his paintings, especially during his early Rose Period, center around circus themes: Girl on a Ball, and Family of Saltimbanques.
The circus has often been treated in the literature of the world by writers who have become fascinated with its process. Ernest Hemingway once claimed, "The Circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money. Every thing else is supposed to be bad for you. It is the only spectacle I know, that while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream." On the other side of the globe, the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky wrote of his feelings after experiencing his first circus: "I don't know exactly what the circus gave me. Except that I saw people risking their lives while being beautiful, for the enjoyment of their neighbors. But I think that's enough." In fact, circus imagery is a major part of the works of some of the world's greatest writers and philosophers, including Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Steinbeck, Booth Tarkington, and Mark Twain. And circus themes surface in short stories by such well-known American writers as Stephen Vincent Benet, Paul Gallico, O. Henry, Evan Hunter, MacKinlay Kantor, Alice Lide, Jack London, Katherine Anne Porter, William Saroyan, Mark Van Doren, and Thomas Wolfe."The smell of the sawdust, the crack of the ringmaster's whip, and the ancient jokes of the clown, and the wonderful linguistic performances of the lemonade man," wrote O. Henry, "are temptations that most of us strive to resist in vain."
Much less ambitious popular entertainment media arts have also used the circus as a subject matter extensively in their work. Those of us who as small boys and girls used to listen to the radio will remember the adventures of Tom Mix, Clyde Beatty, or Sky King. Sky King? Yes: Kirby Grant, one of many cowboy heroes who used to travel with the circus, worked as Sky King for the Tom Packs, James Bros., Gatti, and Carson & Barnes circuses. In the early days of television, does anyone remember Circus Boy, which starred future "Monkee," Mickey Dolenz? Or Don Ameche's International Showtime, or Big Top, or the long line of circus performers who amazed and delighted Ed Sullivan's audiences?
Finally, the circus has not been ignored in popular film arts. Some of the many landmark movies which have treated circus themes and stories include Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928); Tod Browning's cult film, Freaks (1932); the Marx Brothers' At the Circus (1939); Walt Disney's Dumbo (1941) and Toby Tyler (1960); Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952); Ingmar Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel (1953); Trapeze (1956) with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis; Rodgers & Hart's musical Jumbo (1962); Circus World (1964) with John Wayne; Federico Fellini's The Clowns (1971); and most recently Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987).
Sub-Section 1. Fears
Another facet of the circus concerns each of us in the audience, and may in large part account for this kind of show's overall undying popularity: As individual human beings, we may have a private, deep-seated psychological need for what we can get out of a circus performance that goes far beyond its mere entertainment value. American master poet e. e. cummings once wrote, "Were Congress to pass a bill compelling every adult inhabitant of the United States of America to visit the circus at least twice a year... I believe that throughout the country, four out of five hospitals, jails, and asylums would close down, and millions of psychoanalysts would be thrown out of employment." The remark may not be so far-fetched and whimsical as it sounds. The circus, like an athletic competition and a religious mass, fulfills part of our human need for order, ritual, and spectacle on a grand scale. And perhaps even more important, it forces us to confront our own most basic fears: fears of who we are and who we might be if the normal fetters of society were removed from us; fears of falling, of being laughed at, and of death in the jaws of some primitive beast.
Circus performers face head-on the fears that paralyze the rest of us. They are the ideal illustration that fear can be managed. In watching them, we see that fear is something to be controlled, something we can learn to live with, if not to overcome. No good aerialists, for instance, ever stop being afraid. The lack of fear, they tell us, makes for careless and much more dangerous work. The kick comes from facing the continuing fear, and going ahead anyway. Burt Lancaster,who performed on the flying trapeze at the beginning of his long career, summarized the exhilaration of the circus: "Like getting up in front of a camera or on a stage for the first time, when it's your turn under the big top, you just got to go out and do it all by yourself. The excitement is nothing compared to that fabulous feeling of accomplishment after turning a double somersault, breaking out, and finding yourself safe in the strong secure hands of your catcher, saying, `I did it. I really did it!"' N
Circus folk are not really fearless, any more than the rest of us who keep our feet safely on the ground. They simply substitute their own peculiar set of fears for our more conventional ones. They would never dare to eat peanuts in the dressing room, or to put a costume on backwards, or to enter the ring on a left foot. Any such rash actions could jeopardize the safety of a performer or a whole show. Jinxes and superstitions are taken very seriously. Just as an actor would never dare whistle or utter the name "Macbeth" within the confines of a theatre, circus folk would never dare move a wardrobe trunk once it has been spotted; it would mean only that, like it or not, the performer was leaving the show. On the other hand, to see three white horses in succession, and no red-headed women, is good luck.
Section D. Carnivals and Kids
Before we leave this brief introduction into the nature of the circus and its impact on us, let us be clear about two things that a circus is definitely not. First, a circus is not a carnival. Carnivals are commercial interests; they exist without artistic goals, primarily to make money. Also unlike a circus, they are not a show, and they are not meant to be a display of excellence. Except for special event audiences and side-show crowds eager to see the rare or the forbidden, there are no spectators. Carnivals are mostly a series of activities in which ordinary people are meant to be engaged as participants. On one side of a booth or ticket stand are the Ferris-wheel riders, the balloon-poppers, bell-ringers, ball-throwers, and thrill-seekers—all of us eager to engage in any activity which might distract us from the mundaneness of our daily lives. We all spend a large portion of our waking hours securing our own and our families' safety and security. But since we can't "play it safe" all the time, we tell ourselves that we need and want the illusion, the pretense of risk that a carnival can offer. It's a very different kind of entertainment from the circus, which presents us not with illusion but many times with the real risk of the performer. Meanwhile, on the other side of the carnival booth and ticket stand are a lot of people eager to take our money from us. Crooked or clean, carnivals provide most of the amusements on the midway at American state and county fairs. They are popularly viewed as at least as good a way as any state-sponsored lottery for Americans to risk and lose our hard-earned money, and a lot more fun. The biggest of American carnival troupes, the giant Strate show, still travels on rail (the only self-contained amusement company outside the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to do so). Indeed, carnivals are a huge industry, but they are not circuses.
Second, there is a popular misconception that the circus is just for the kids. In the coming pages, it will become clear that circus is not "children's entertainment." It is entertainment for "children of all ages," for the child in each of us. Nothing can so warm the cockles of an adult's heart as a child's face, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, gathering into his consciousness a new awareness: "So this is what I am. So this is what I can do." There is complete acceptance in his face of what he sees. No immediate questions or doubts ensue. But years later, the images he takes in as a child will haunt his memory.
Without life experience, we can't fully appreciate the circus as children. The adult can be much more responsive, because he or she has already decided: "I'm not, and I can't." Those kinds of self-limiting convictions and preconceptions are what allow circus acts to make such a stunning impact on us. When we see performed in front of our very eyes what we had thought to be an impossibility, our convictions become questions: "If she can, could I?" and "Can I be ...?" And sometimes, just as in the aftermath of a religious miracle, our questions generate new convictions. The flight of an acrobat, the personality of an elephant, or the antic of a clown is the stuff of dreams, and it is our dreams that define who we are. The circus is one of the few places on earth where we normal human beings can complete the line, "I wish it were possible to ..." or "I wish I could ..." The circus offers the undeniable proof that "It is possible," and that "I can."
The business of defining ourselves and what we are capable of has
preoccupied the hearts and minds of mankind since we first walked on two feet
and concluded that we were somehow different from other animals. We will see
that that search for definition is the business of the circus as well. And we
will come to recognize that that business is vital and necessary for the health
of our society. All this is certainly far removed from the seedy status the
circus is often mistakenly accorded as a distant, impoverished relative of the
entertainment industry. In fact, during the coming chapters, we may well be
brought to the realization that in the circus lies the ultimate metaphor for
the human condition. As American poet Vachel Lindsay wrote in 1928:
|For every Soul is a circus.
|And every mind is a tent,
|And every heart is a sawdust ring
|Where the circling race is spent.