In 1951, my older brother took me to see my first circus.
Our home town was Erie, PA, and the Ringling Brothers
Barnum & Bailey Circus had stopped in Erie almost every
year since it was founded at the end of the 19th century.
(I knew that because in the pickle cellar of the house I grew
up in, my grandfather had posted a color poster of a
local Ringling circus visit at the turn of the century.)
Before that, Erie County had been the birthplace of sorts
of the modern American circus when the originator of the
first U.S. touring circus, Dan Rice, had made a suburb of
Erie the winter home of his famed traveling enterprise in
I was less than 10 years old, and of course I was dazzled
by the extravaganza in three rings under a huge tent with its
clowns, acrobats, exotic animals and spectacular feats on the
ground and in the air.
One of the acts featured was the trapeze artistry of a young
man from Arkansas who had grown up in a circus family
that went back five generations to pre-World War I England.
The reason I know and remember this was that 20 years later,
I became friends with that trapeze artist, then retired from the
circus and now the impresario of two theaters in Minneapolis
where, among other matters, he had become one of the
inventors of modern improvisational comedy. His name is
Dudley Riggs, and his 1950s Instant Theater company (later
the Brave New Workshop), along with Second City in Chicago,
introduced a new comedy form that is still big entertainment
today all over the nation. (Riggs’ autobiography, Flying Funny:
My Life Without A Net, will be published in April.)
When I re-met Dudley in Minneapolis 20 years after seeing him
perform in Erie, and he told me that he had been there, I went
back into my fastidiously kept collection of printed programs,
and found the one from the 1951 circus with a full-page photo
of young Riggs on the trapeze.
Thereafter, when the Ringling Circus and other circuses came
to Minneapolis, I often attended their performances with Dudley
(who seemed to know everyone in the circus companies) and
learned much about its fascinating and epic lore.
I mention all of this because of this week’s announcement that
Ringling Brothers Circus, after 144 years, is closing at the end of
this coming season. Other, smaller circuses still will be touring,
although it might be problematic in the coming years for them,
too. As the largest and most famous circus in North America, the
Ringling institution had become perhaps too big and too much a
spectacle of the past. Enormous payroll, maintenance and
transportation costs kept rising, and one of the unique features
of any great circus, its trained animal acts, had become very
politically incorrect as they were constantly criticized by animal
The circus has been one of the iconic institutions of human
civilization. Its extinction should not surprise us in an age of
predominately digital experiences and virtual gratifications.
The romance of sounds, smells, and colors of the circus amazed
generation after generation of audiences all over the world. Now
the artifice of the computer can outdistance these sensual
phenomena just as a computer can defeat the world’s best chess
There is no going back, but the passing of a great circus must
be noted --- if only as another marker of the transition of a known
age to an unknown other one.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.