The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing.
The last line of a T.S. Eliot poem talks of the earth ending "...not with a bang but a whimper."1 The Greatest Show on Earth, for all its pomp and bombast, its hype and fanfare, will end not with a glorious round the country farewell tour that would last for years. No, instead it will creak quietly to a halt later this month and fold its tents forever.
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I remember seeing an incarnation of this same circus in 1977 with my mother and grandmother, watching the elephants and tigers and taking in all the sights and sounds. Had I known they had arrived by train and lived aboard it, I don't think my mother could have gotten me home!
And yet, when I ask myself, if I had such good memories, why didn't I take my own kids to see the circus, I'm confronted with some of the reasons the circus had fallen on hard times. After years of connecting with my kids through animals and educating them about wildlife, why was I uneasy about explaining an elephant's role in the circus? Somehow, the long, unrelenting push of animal rights activists had chased my family and me out of the circus tent.
That is the same reason behind the circus owners' decision. After bowing to relentless pressure from animal rights activists and retiring their elephants last year, ticket sales dropped as the owners anticipated. But they didn't just drop; they tanked, forcing Feld Entertainment to pull up stakes, leaving a lot of people with mixed feelings.
On the other hand, unmixed and plainly clear is my regret at not getting a last look at a unique American institution that is quietly dying along side its reason for existence. The Red and the Blue Trains, for all their aluminum-gray patchwork, were a rolling community, a total of 124 passenger cars traveling from one city to the next, more often than not at the mercy of a freight railroad to get there. Residents of this community had one foot in the 19th century circus and railroad traditions and the other foot in the 21st century technology, with satellite TV, DVRs and smart phones all as mobile as they are. Maybe a lot of things got mixed, especially toward the end.
But that's a circus for you.
I just wish a lot more of us got a chance to say goodbye before they left.⚒