Speaking of Elephants

by Bob Sparrow

An American tradition that has lasted more than 146 years comes to a close next month. On Sunday, May 21 at Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus ‘Big Top’ will come down for the very last time. And with it goes the threat that any of your children or grand children will run off and join the circus.

It was called The Greatest Show on Earth, of course that was before Tiny Tim or Charo created their shows, but it was indeed a great show. I can attest to that personally, but first a little history. The circus as we know it today started in 1875 when Phineas Taylor Barnum (‘P.T.’ to his friends) was convinced to lend his name and his money to an existing circus that soon combined efforts with James Bailey’s circus and purchased the first elephant born in the United States and later purchased ‘Jumbo’ which was advertised as the ‘world’s largest elephant’ – a fact they couldn’t prove, but no one could disprove it either. That’s sort of the way old P.T worked. You may remember P.T. Barnum as the person that said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”. Actually it was never confirmed that he said that and in fact, he was known to be very courteous to his suckers . . . er, customers.

‘Jumbo’

P.T. died in1891 and Bailey purchased the circus from his widow and continued to tour the east coast, until 1897 when he decided to take the act to Europe. A few years before that, five of the seven Ringling brothers had started a small circus in Wisconsin and when they heard that Bailey was taking his circus to Europe, they decided to head east, which apparently was circus-crazy. When Bailey returned from Europe he discovered that the Ringling Brothers were dominating the east coast, so he moved his circus out west in 1905. The next year Bailey died and a year later the circus was sold to the two remaining Ringling brothers.

As the circus gained in popularity and size, a train was needed to move the circus from city to city and it became a popular spectacle to see the train pull into town and watch the workers set up the tents and work with the animals.

In 1950 the train pulled into San Francisco when the circus was no longer performing in tents, but rather large permanent structure, so it set up shop in ‘the City’s’ Civic Auditorium. Our Dad and his Mom took brother Jack and me to the circus. I suspect that our Mom stayed home because she was pregnant with my co-writer. I remember a lot about that day and when I called Jack, who has the memory of an elephant, to ask him about his recollections, he happily filled in some of the details. We started recalling the things that we saw, the high wire act, the clowns (Emmett Kelly, the famous hobo clown was among them), a lion tamer, the ring leader in his top hat and of course, the ‘dancing’ elephants. We were amazed. To us, it was indeed the Greatest Show on Earth. You have to keep in mind that we didn’t have a television until a few years later.

The 5 Ringling Brothers

Through world wars, the Depression and various other wars and recessions, the circus endured and became part of our culture, part of Americana. But it’s easy to see why they are closing their doors, or tent flaps, now, what with their rising costs and dwindling attendance. With all the entertainment literally at the fingertips of today’s kids, the circus is too mundane, doesn’t move fast enough, too analogue in a digital world. I get it, but it’s still sad to see it go.

To Mr. Barnum, Mr. Bailey and to the five Ringling Brothers, you had an amazing run. Thank you for a great childhood memory.

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