Farewell to the Big Top and its Big Thrills

The child’s heart that beats in my aging breast is breaking. They’re shutting down the circus.

After 146 years (exactly twice my life span so far), the iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is turning off the lights, packing up the Big Top and sending home the clowns.

In May, the roar of the sawdust and the snap of the lion-tamer’s whip will pass into history. Despite a tradition that the show must go on, The Greatest Show on Earth no longer will.

No more ringmaster with his red frock coat and snappy hat. No more ferocious cats snarling in a cage barely strong enough to contain their wrath. No more sequined beauties risking life and limb under the spotlight’s glare in a tent the size of Texas.

Farewell to those magical afternoons sitting on hard wooden bleachers, wolfing down too many hot dogs and too much gooey, gluey cotton candy, transfixed by the action in all three rings.

It’s going, going, nearly gone. Clown car, acrobats, jugglers, human cannonballs and Jumbo alike.

In truth, Jumbo disappeared ages ago. The massive African elephant, who made his North American debut in 1882, died tragically just three years later on a train track in St. Thomas, Ontario at the tender age of 24.

What little remains of the gentle giant now rests in a Peter Pan peanut butter jar at Tufts University in Massachusetts, after a fire destroyed his taxidermied body. It’s an ignominious end for a beast who once symbolized all things circus and all things big.

Those lumbering pachyderms were more than just performers. They were a foreign, frightening, fascinating presence on the circus grounds. They were also hard workers, without whom the splendour of the Big Top would never have risen.

Ironically, it was elephants, as much as anything else, that led to the pending demise of the big show. Last year, in response to public concern about their welfare, the circus owners decided to retire them all from active duty.

That apparently caused a decline in ticket sales, which made the biz no longer viable.

While some smaller companies continue to do the circuit, nowadays you’re more likely to get something called “cirque”, with Canadians (especially Quebeckers) at the forefront.

The ticket prices are likely beyond the reach of most ordinary families, but the acts are possibly more spellbinding and death-defying than ever. Just different.

As the sawdust, elephant dung and prancing ponies fade away, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic.

Phineas T. Barnum never actually said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Still, there was a golden time when all of us were suckers for a good circus.

I certainly was. And I always will be.

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