With the Shrine Circus in town — and filling up the tent — thought it fitting to reprint an earlier piece on wrote on the death of old-time circuses and the advent of the new.
By Bob Quarteroni
“The Greatest Show on Earth” is dead.
Killed by the same disease that doomed slide rules, telephone booths and typewriters: progress.
What thrilled the folks a century ago is now simply archaic, fusty and old-fashioned, a horse-and-buggy attraction of ever diminishing interest to an internet-addled population.
Throw in some ever-growing anger over its treatment of elephants and other animals and a fiscal slap in the face and its fate was sealed.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is dead; long live Cirque Soleil and others of its stripe, the new sweeping out the old.
After its nearly century-and-a-half run, the gaudy, three-ring display will shut down in May, sad Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling.
Feld cited declining ticket sales — which dipped even lower as the company retired its touring elephants — coupled with high operating costs as the reasons that “made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”
Yep, the times they are a’ changing and the circus didn’t changer with them. Like black-and-white television, crew cuts and tap dancing, it increasingly resembled something grandparents would love, but left the booming youth population indifferent.
A fascinating book, “The Circus in America,” looked at the rise of the circus in American cultural life and summed it up nicely in two sentences.
“in many cases the circus provided people’s first view of new inventions, exotic animals and peoples, and popular entertainments. The history of the circus is in many ways a microcosm of the history of America.”
The key phrase there is “first view,” Yes, a century ago elephants and camels and acrobats were something new, exciting and irresistible.
But it’s been there, done that in spades for decades now, and if you want to see an elephant, Discover Channel, Animal Planet and may others will allow you a close-up, free of charge.
Even Feld agreed, saying “In the past decade there’s been more change in the world than in the 50 or 75 years prior to that. And I don’t think (the circus) isn’t relevant to the people in the same way.”
Indeed. But the final straw was clearly the tsunami of outrage over the circus’ treatment of its elephants and other large animals. In a time when we spend exorbitant amounts of money spoiling our pets – I know I certainly do – their cruel treatment of animals was increasingly unpalatable.
Separating a mother elephant from her offspring, using metal bull-hooks in training, confining them for long periods of time – in the off-season even in trucks. All this savagery was increasingly seen as beyond the pale.
Especially cruel considering just how magnificent elephants are. Their close social bonds are well known, their ability to communicate over long distances is receiving increasing attention. And they have even been reported to weep in frustration or sorrow. Caitrin Nicol Keiper, writing in The New Atlantis magazine, went so far as to conclude that “they are deeply capable of love.”
And it’s getting clearer and clearer which way the dominoes are falling when it comes to animal cruelty: “Blackfish” and Sea World first, China banning ivory imports, now this. As the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement: “All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors…must take note: Society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them.”
Some, perhaps many, will be sad that the circus will soon be folding its tent for the last time, but I won’t.
For me, it was just as cruel in its own way as the abominable Hegins pigeon shoot, the continuing outrage that is metal foothold trapping and the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s absurd policy that the only good coyote is a dead coyote. The Commission allows anyone to kill them 365/24.
And then all these yahoos holding coyote “hunts” in which they vie to kill the largest coyote, weigh the slaughtered creature, and then just throw it onto a dump; a magnificent predator and highly intelligent canine killed for the worst of all possible reasons: Just because they could.
As the Dalai Lama so magnificently said, “Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not die, so do other creatures.
If I need a circus fix I’ll go see Cirque du Soleil again. I saw it in Philadelphia a few years ago and could not believe how stunning, now exciting, how physically wonderfully and balletically magical it was.
And I’m not alone in that opinion. Cirque’s productions have been seen by some 150 million people around the world. In less than 20 years since its creation, Cirque achieved a level of success it took Ringling Brothers more than 100 years to attain.
It’s a circus perfectly attuned to today’s taste. It’s now the greatest show on earth, and it’s blessedly cruelty free.