Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Greatest Show on Earth

I was taken aback but hardly surprised when my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratszch's in Milwaukee, closed its doors for good last month. This month marked the end of an age old Chicago institution, Shallers Pump in Bridgeport, founded 136 years ago making it the longest continuously operating bar in town. I was saddened when I heard the news, but not shocked. In fact, part of me was amazed that both institutions survived as long as they did. It took lots of love and commitment to keep these moribund business on life support, as the average age of their patrons increased by one year, every time the calendar turned.

However I was blown away when I heard the news of the impending demise of the Greatest Show on Earth. By the time you read this, the flood lights of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, will have been extinguished for good. I guess I just took the circus for granted; the thought never occurred to me that an institution founded the same year as the first professional baseball league, 1871, and one just as intimately connected to this country, would close its doors for good.

Truth be told, to the best of my knowledge, I've never been to a Ringling Brothers show. I've been to other circuses; my parents took me as a small child to the Shrine Circus at the former Medinah Temple in Chicago. I've been to a couple honest to goodness three ring circuses held as they were in the old days, in a tent. I was lucky enough to have attended a taping of Bozo's Circus, the iconic daily TV show intimately known by every person who spent time in Chicago as a child in the sixties and seventies  Most recently, when our children were younger, my wife and I regularly patronized Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on the site of the former summer home of the Ringling Bros. Circus, and the wonderful one ring Circus Zoppe, which bills itself as "A European family tradition since 1842."

Needless to say, The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was the big time, the major leagues as far as circuses were concerned. They became even more big time in 1957 when they gave up traveling with their portable tents, and performed all their shows in permanent venues such as theaters and sports arenas. Until someone pointed it out, it hadn't occurred to Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah that his team's annual "Circus Tour", where the Bulls and their stadium-mates, the Chicago Blackhawks had an extended road trip every November, was necessary literally because the circus came to town, performing at their home venue, the United Center, and before that, the Chicago Stadium.

You didn't have to buy a ticket to participate in the circus as the traveling show, animals and all, would disembark from their train in the railyards in the west Loop and march down Washington Street to the United Center.

The stars of the circus as well as that parade, if you could call it that, were the elephants. Dozens of them, or at least so it seems in my recollection, marched single file down the street, at normal elephant gate, which is to say about twice the speed of a normal human gate. One of the death knells of the RBB&B Circus was the decision to retire the elephants in the light of concerns for their welfare in an era of growing concern for animal rights. From what I understand, the animals of the RBB&B Circus were well cared for, at least as far as it is possible to care for domesticated animals. I believe that the concern for the animals is more philosophical than humanitarian, questioning the ethics of putting animals to work, especially in the frivolous world of the entertainment industry. Personally I don't have a problem with circus animals but that could be a reflection of the values of my generation. When I mentioned the closing of the circus to a co-worker, thirty years my junior, she had an emphatic one word response: "Good!"

I suppose the Ringling Brothers Circus without elephants is a little like big league baseball without the home run; the game is still exciting, but something special is missing. You can only go so far with stupid human tricks alone, unless you're the Cirque du Soleil who seem to have cornered the market in them.

Then there are the clowns. Clowns have always existed on the fringes of society, according to Professor Andrew Stott of the University of Buffalo. Here is a quote and commentary, published in a 2015 article in Time Magazine:
"Clowns got a boost from the popularity of the traveling big-top circus during the "golden age of the railroad," which linked successful clowns to the perception of 20th century America at the height of its industrial strength. But, as traveling circuses lost their pride of place as a form of entertainment, many clowns lost their platforms. That created an image of "clowns being associated with exhaustion or faded glory," says Stott, who points to Krusty on The Simpsons as an example of a clown "past his prime" and "morally, financially bankrupt.
Incidentally, that character of Krusty the Clown was supposedly inspired by Chicago's own Bozo the Clown, as portrayed by the late Bob Bell. The image of clowns certainly wasn't helped when it was revealed that serial killer John Wayne Gacy spent much of his free time, when he wasn't molesting then killing young men that is, as a clown. Sinister clowns have over the past generation, made appearances in many works of fiction, most notably horror films, and recently a number of well publicized but dubious "sightings" of people dressed as clowns have allegedly taken place, luring children into the woods.

Sadly, many people today think that clowns are scary; this is just not a good time to be a good clown.

Given the aversion to clowns and performing animals, not to mention the vast array of  entertainment options made available through technology, it seems logical that the demise of the great American institution of The Greatest Show on Earth was inevitable.

 It's a sad day.

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