The Greatest Show on Earth?

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is closing down its circus after 146 years. They claim its a changing climate, that children no longer have the attention span to sit through a multi-hour show, not when video games and cellphones beckon. For years they have been harangued for how they treat animals in their shows, especially the way intelligent and kind elephants have been abused. I believe that animal cruelty is wrong, but I cannot deny the magic that the circus has bestowed upon our culture, one of the last, great shared experiences of millions of people. I now have that dubious distinction of being part of the last generation to see Ringling Bros. with all of its bells and whistles, elephants included.

It was a summer night in 1991. I was 8 years old. My mother took my brother and me to the Long Beach Arena, walking hand in hand through large streaming crowds, the black asphalt still warm from the sun drenched afternoon. Here and there were stands offering cotton candy, flavored ice, chips, hotdogs, posters, stuffed animals. I was overwhelmed. Never before in my memory had I seen so many people in one place.

I remember the arena towering plain white in front of me, entering in through a tall glass vestibule, walking up flights of concrete stairs, sitting down on raked bleachers 30 feet above the ground. I can still see the three rings; I can hear the marching of the elephants, the roar of motorcycles flying around the inside of metal cages. The parade of clowns, the thrill of flame swallowers, the tigers…tigers! All sorts of animals moving and dancing and performing; I had never been to a zoo, seeing creatures of such magnificence exhilarated me. To put trust in the training that a lion would not bite off your head, the place where an elephant could dance with a camel in pirouettes; how can anything seem impossible after the sensual assault of the circus?

I watched the flying trapeze and felt the flutter-fear of gravity as men and women soared above me, muscle and skill allowing humans to fly sans wings. There was even a woman shot out of a canon – though I believe it was all a big joke and she never did actually go anywhere. I remember the elephants pissing on the arena floor and the huge laugh that gave me.

After the Greatest Show on Earth was over, we walked out and down to the beach, mounting steps up the bluffs to get back to East Ocean Blvd. I turned and looked back down across the emptying parking lot to see the arena bathed in light, the circus’s searchlights dancing on clouds in the sky. The harbor lights twinkled, the Queen Mary’s foghorn blew, and ahead of me was sleep and tomorrow. I thought to myself that I would never forget what I saw – the perfection of the event, the experience.

Now these memories are final and the circus is over, forever.

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