Saturday, May 20, 2017

Slow Saturday Special: Big Top

I will be ducking in and out for the rest of the day so....

"Circus is leaving town, permanently" by Thomas Farragher Globe Columnist  February 11, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls — children of all ages — the circus that has been coming to town for 146 years is closing down, a victim of dwindling attendance, high operating costs, an ever-changing entertainment appetite, and protracted opposition from animal rights groups.

When the lights go down on shows in Providence and on Long Island in May, the glistening you see in the performers’ eyes will not be the fake tears of a painted clown, but the very real emotions of dedicated professionals saying farewell to an unusual, cherished life.

“Whatever you can imagine the circus is like, it’s even better,’’ said Ashley Vargas, one of the show’s hosts and a skater. “It’s terribly sad, because I would have stayed at Ringling for the rest of my life. I love it. I love it so much. We all share the common goal of making people happy. No matter where we come from, which walks of life, it’s just a beautiful family.’’

A big and costly family: 300 people, including 105 performers, who travel on a mile-long train for 44 weeks each year, clocking 16,000 miles from coast to coast, a journey that predates the electric light bulb, the telephone, and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’’

Kenneth Feld was a student at Boston University in November 1967 when his father acquired the iconic circus, signing the deal — appropriately and theatrically — at the Coliseum in Rome.

Feld, who likes to say he went to BU for undergraduate work and the circus for his graduate degree, spent some formative summers roaming Eastern Europe, scouting circus talent and learning the difference between a good somersault and a bad one.

“The problem is, this is still a 146-year-old business model that’s only been slightly modified,’’ said Feld, chairman and chief executive officer of Feld Entertainment Inc.

Feld said anyone with a heart and a pulse cannot help but feel the emotions stirred by this epilogue, the end of a magical menagerie whose big-top genealogy can be traced to Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum and John Ringling. 

I think I have been to one my entire life, and that was about 45 years ago.

“All entertainment is highly specialized,’’ said Feld, who is also chairman of the BU board of trustees. “And the circus is still all things to all people. But that may not be what people want. The consumer dictates what they will pay for. If we were selling out every show, we shouldn’t be having this discussion.’’

But in Charlotte last week, news of circus doom boosted ticket sales. And, if briefly, the greatest show seemed to live up to its name.

No boycotts because of the transgender issue?

Trapeze artists flew. Lions roared. There were zany clown hijinks: snowball fights and pratfalls. There were unicycles, motorcycles, and live music. When the lights went down on the clowns and the spotlight came up on the animal trainer in a metal mesh cage, the big crowd was electrified.

All of this plays out against a backstory that you can follow or ignore. The three little boys who sat next to me — rapt and mesmerized — were not paying attention to the good-versus-evil melodrama before them. They were at the circus, literally on the edge of their seats, and that was enough.

But here is that drama in a nutshell anyway: Our ringmaster is in a battle with a wicked queen in an enormous multicolored skirt. Her name is Queen Tatiana, and somehow she has captured the best circus performers in the world. Well, like any ringmaster worth his salt, Johnathan isn’t going to put up with that. So cue the intergalactic passion play in which — wouldn’t you know it? — good ultimately triumphs and the evil queen finally finds her way to the path of righteousness.

In other words: This is not your parents’ — or your grandparents’ — circus.

But it’s leaving town. Forever. And that was what brought Judith Jaeger to her seat last week. She was with her daughter Kristin. “I took her to the circus in 1978 when she was still in utero — seven months pregnant,’’ Judith said as she settled in, two little grandkids — Noah and Greyson — sandwiched between their mom and grandma.

“We’re all very sad that it’s over,’’ said Kristin, a counselor and therapist. “It’s a family tradition for us to come every year.’’

They’ve paid $60 apiece for their four tickets and are sporting tall, multicolored circus hats.

The 69-year-old Jaeger remembers shows in Madison Square Garden and a story that is now family lore. Her family packed up and headed for the big top. It wasn’t until they were atop the George Washington Bridge that they discovered they’d left their tickets at home: a 90-minute mistake that melted away when the elephants entered the arena.

“We’ve done this for generations. It’s good, clean family fun,’’ the family’s matriarch told me. “And it’s exciting. It’s a shame that we’re losing a part of American culture. But kids today — they can’t sit still.’’

A few sections over, Fran Keever, 70, and her daughter, Dawn, were settling in after their 35-mile drive from nearby Lincolnton. Keever’s mind drifted to her father, born in 1901 and a lifelong lover of the circus.

“This is an American institution that’s leaving us,’’ she said. “I hope it’s not true.’’

But it is.

It’ll all be over in three months.

I sat next to a guy last week who knows something about changing American tastes and enduring national icons and institutions.

His name is “Cowboy” Ralph Spicer. He’s 91 years old and was wearing a white cowboy hat and a brown-fringed rawhide coat when I took the seat beside him as the performers warmed up.

Spicer, a World War II veteran, was the lead singer in a band for nearly 27 years, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and Lefty Frizzell. “You name it, and I’ve worked with all of them,’’ he said.

Spicer remembers what it used to be like when the circus came to town: horse-drawn wooden wagons and a parade of elephants tramping down Main Street.

“I think it’s terrible that they have to go out like this,’’ he said. “I’ve been around the globe. They really need to keep this going. I hope they do. But these days, the kids want to see sex on TV.’’

Just then, the lights went down, and the cosmic story line took hold....


It's a “tragedy for the arts and its institutions, one with cultural significance.’’ 

I imagine the animals might feel differently.

different kind of circus, right from the start.

I'm quitting for the night.

UPDATE: Ringling’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ takes final bow