Like many people, I was stunned by yesterday’s news that the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus will be closing up shop at the end of its current season. I have long credited Ringling Bros for kindling my interest in theatre and stage design. When I was quite young — 5, 6, 7 years old — Ringling Bros would play at Madison Square Garden each April and my mother took me to the circus as a birthday gift. My most vivid memories of the show are of Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big cats and also, most magically, of the moment when the lights went down and all the kids were asked to take out the miniature flashlights we were given (or bought) and swing them around on their lanyards so the entire arena was filled with twirling stars of light. On the way out, my mother bought me a circus poster as a memento; several of these built up over the years as the prevailing decorative motif of my otherwise bland bedroom.
My mother became very ill shortly after my 7th birthday and I don’t think she ever took me to the circus again. However, her mother, my grandmother, subsequently took me to see the famous New York City Ballet rendering of The Nutcracker and once to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. I am very privileged to have been exposed to these very different kinds of performances at a young age; without this exposure, I may never have become a lighting designer. In retrospect, though, I wonder if it was the performances or that fact that I was taken to them by a beloved caregiver that was most important. I may have witnessed the pinnacle of production values by being in New York, but a child raised, like mine, in Madison WI or Phoenix AZ, can have equally impactful experiences. It’s not really about it being the biggest and best circus that was important to me; it was sitting in the dark with my mother, creating a shared memory, that caused it to stick. That can happen anywhere.
It is worth remembering that Ringling Bros. is just one of several spectacle performances owned by Feld Entertainment. The company has not, for example, been forced into bankruptcy by animal rights activists (a narrative some on the political right would have us believe). Feld has just decided to end the circus. That they chose to retire their elephants is just one of the reasons to end the run; in his announcement, Kenneth Feld mentions declining ticket sales that predate the elephant retirement, although the decline sped up immediately following.
Circus – as a form of art and entertainment – punctuated my life in another way in addition to childhood birthdays. In 1988, a few weeks before I moved out of New York City for Madison WI, I went to Battery Park and sat under a blue and yellow big top to watch a new kind of circus, one that relied on acrobats, clowns, spectacle, and storytelling. The company came from Montreal and was called Cirque du Soleil. I remember thinking while watching it that it was so totally different from the circus I saw as a child, but even more magical for the lack of animals. Competition from what has become the Cirque entertainment behemoth likely played a role in Ringling Bros. declining ticket sales.
I did return, in a way, to Ringling Bros as an adult as a parent. When my own children were very young, 4, 5, 6 years old (so young they say they don’t remember it now) I took them once a year to the Circus World Museum, which was only an hour away from Madison in Baraboo WI. Circus World is a living museum of the Ringling Brothers, including its own big top show.
I regret that I won’t have a Ringling Bros show to take some future grandchild to, but circus lives on not only in worldwide extravaganzas like Cirque du Soleil, but also in the kind of one-ring family show that was at the root of the Feld Entertainment extravaganza that closed. Shows like the Zoppe Family Circus, which has as long a history, or Bindlestiff, which has been around for just two decades are just two examples.
Circus lives! Take your children.