TEXT BY DAVID VON DREHLE | PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDRES KUDACKI FOR TIME
The last act. After 146 years, the circus is leaving town for good
Though it might sound quaint, there was a time when people could be astonished.
Before supercomputers fit into shirt pockets and Presidents tweeted. Before moving pictures were beamed through the air. Before moving pictures.
Not only could people be astonished—they enjoyed it. Loved it enough to pay for it. And so businesses sprang up to meet the demand. The astonishment industry was called the circus.
And what an industry it was. Picture yourself in a quiet American town of ordinary people doing nothing even remotely astonishing. One day, a couple of strangers show up with handbills and paste to cover the town with circus posters. SEE the fearless lion tamer. THRILL to the death-defying wire walkers. GASP at the woman on the flying trapeze. Your brain did the rest. By the time the circus arrived via boxcar or truck, you were desperate to have your mind blown. Elephants—real, live elephants, thousands of miles from Africa or India—pulled the ropes to raise the tents. Inside you would see a man ordering tigers around, women poised on the backs of cantering horses, human pyramids walking on high wires with nothing to catch them if they fell.
On May 21, the most famous circus of all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will end its 146-year run, not with a whimper or a bang but mostly a shrug. Death has been a long time coming. A company press release put much of the blame on the recent decision, made under pressure from animal-rights groups, to stop using elephants as performers. But in fact, the Greatest Show on Earth has been headed for this day since the 1950s, when the same force that killed vaudeville—television—drove the storied operation out of its vast canvas big tops and into ho-hum auditoriums and arenas.
Other, smaller circuses limp on, but the end of this run is a milestone. Almost the entire history of the American circus is summed up in one long name. “Barnum” refers to Phineas Taylor Barnum, the brilliant sideshow promoter who counts the current President among his admirers. In 1871, already famous for his publicity stunts, Barnum joined circus innovator William Coup and his partner Dan Castello to create a traveling menagerie and equestrian stunt show; six years later, Barnum merged with a circus run by the gifted ringmaster James A. Bailey.
A circus in those days was more than a performance—it was a culture. One less sensitive than ours, but also less jaded. Alongside the big top were smaller tents that contained wonders and oddities and thrills: fat men and bearded ladies, dwarves and giants, conjoined twins and acrobats with missing limbs. There were games of chance (usually rigged), and exotic animals in painted cages, and musicians with gold piping on their jackets ever ready to strike up Fucik’s “Entrance of the Gladiators.”
And it was sexy too. In an era of long skirts, long sleeves and long sermons, the circus gave people permission to stare at athletes in tights and tiny costumes. The women wore outfits with legs showing up to here and cleavage down to there. The men marched shirtless, with muscles rippling, to swing upside down high in the air and snatch tumbling women from the edge of disaster.
This rolling exotica sank its hooks deep in the American mind. Generations of bored children dreamed of running away to join the merry misfit band of rogues and live lives that would never be dull again.
After Bailey died in 1906 at his sprawling New York estate, the Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wis., owners of a thriving circus, bought the Barnum and Bailey operation from the ringmaster’s widow. Eventually, they merged the two shows and sent their circus trains steaming from coast to coast.
Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away. Sex is everywhere, and entertainment is on demand. Nostalgic parents have been struggling for a couple of decades to hide their disappointment from their children after seeing what the circus has become: a deafening soundtrack of recorded music backing a dull program punctuated by strobe lights, foreshortened performances cut to Internet attention spans, a rip-off of $6 sno-cones and $20 flashlights.
Meanwhile, the children have been struggling to understand why their parents would care. Nothing can compete with the circus that they hold in the palms of their hands.