The Greatest Show on Earth
March 31, 2008 5:55 AM   Subscribe

Under the Big Top: Shhhhhh! The Show's about to start*... quick, take your seat, sit down, and don't make a move. It's been going on for centuries, and now--lucky you will be able to be a part of it, if you haven't already as a child (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Honestly, who hasn't thought of running away from home and joining the Circus (but I'd suggest you wait a couple of years, until you're a little older, and a little wiser, to make these decisions). It is tempting though, when they roll into town with their fancy wagons, and their loud music. Although, the circus may not be as prevalent as it once was, there are new acts being created to entice crowds around the world. [previously]
posted by hadjiboy (14 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
posted by mwhybark at 6:10 AM on March 31, 2008

Is this photo (from the new link) by MetaFilter's own Armitage Shanks?
posted by MtDewd at 6:16 AM on March 31, 2008

I don't know, circus's and zoos always make me sad. I KNOW that the animals are cared for but I hate to see them caged. Especially the big cats.
posted by tabberone at 6:22 AM on March 31, 2008

Wow! Riches and Riches of Excellent Stuff!
Thank You, h-boy!
posted by Dizzy at 6:22 AM on March 31, 2008

Favourite recent circus shows: Cirque Éloize's "Nomade", and Théâtre Equestre Zingaro's "Loungta".
posted by progosk at 7:29 AM on March 31, 2008

When I was a kid, one of the patients at the doctor's office where my mom worked was the general manager of the Charlotte Coliseum. He got us box seats for the circus when it came to town, but we also got tours of the circus tents, a benefit I didn't realize until much later that not everyone got. We'd go pet the camels, get nearly peed on by the tigers, stare (discretely) at the circus folk, all that. I grew up thinking that this was a part of the circus for everyone.

When I was 12 or so, I went to the circus by myself, and unwisely spent all my money on cotton candy and such, so I didn't have change to call my mom and tell her to come pick me up. Being a resourceful kid, I just went down to the band area and bummed a quarter from one of the musicians.

I took my own child to the circus when she was 3. It was at the DC Armory, and as we were driving through town, I pointed out the Capitol in the distance. She said, in her little toddler voice, "Is that where the circus is?" Oh, my. The circus itself wasn't impressive to her--she had no sense of the danger and skill of the acts, and she was a regular visitor to the National Zoo, so there wasn't much there to keep her attention.

I still head down to the circus parade when I can--they usually let the elephants and ponies out of the train then parade them around the Capitol for photo ops. A few years ago, shortly before the parade, I was staking out a spot when I saw a tourist looking confusedly at a map. I helped him figure out where he was going, then mentioned that there'd be a parade of elephants coming by shortly. I saw that my last statement called into the question the veracity of the directions I'd given him. He moved off a hundred feet or so, but stuck around, and did, indeed, see the show. There was a repeat performance just last week (self link).
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:32 AM on March 31, 2008

This is a story about working for Big Apple Circus, and the difference between elephants and horses. It is not my story, but will be told in first person to expedite the narrative.

A few years back I was a “rube” with the big apple. I wasn’t really a rube, just some kid they picked up who always wanted to work circus shows, but I was big and could handle all the noise the real rubes dished out on a regular basis. After the tent was up I had the inglorious task of “drape boy.” I would sit next to the edge of the bleachers and open the curtain for the acts to come on and off from the staging area. Having grown up in the theatre, a completely different animal, I was laughed at when I asked when they were coning to run a com line to me. They just said, “Know when to open it.” It wasn’t rocket surgery. The only warning I got was to always open it early for the horses.

Now I have been riding since about when I could walk, but I had never heard what they told me about these highly trained and intelligent animals; if you do not open the curtain for them, and they are trained to run around the ring three times then run back through the open certain, they will just run into the closed curtain, creating a disastrous pile up that would most likely kill them or break their legs. I had the horse times beaten into me, because this was basically the only way I could screw my job up.

Thankfully, I always opened the curtain for the horses. They ran out, ran around the ring three times with their riders doing all sorts of amazing stuff on their special saddles, I would open the curtain, and they ran out.

There was a time I failed to open the curtain. It was the last show of a two week run, I was tired and kinda hung over and dreading the out, and I didn’t open the curtain for the elephants. When the elephants got to the end of their act, they walked towards the curtain. As they approached it, seeing it was shut, they slowed down, and eventually just stood in front of the curtain. The lead elephant turned his head and looked at me, the guy whose job it is to let them back into the staging area and their water, looked directly at me, and just snorted.

In the circus, even the elephants give you lip when you drop the ball.
posted by Faux Real at 9:51 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

IIRC, the major circuses phased out the Big Top in favor of arena shows in the wake of the Hartford Circus Fire. The canvas had been waterproofed with a mixture of parafin wax and gasoline, which turned out to be a recipe for disaster when a random spark ignited a sidewall.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:47 AM on March 31, 2008

Whhoooophhh, it smells like animal shit in here!

(great post, hadjiboy! now, open a window.)

posted by not_on_display at 1:29 PM on March 31, 2008

Great post hadjiboy, lots of links to explore. Can I add one more - my childhood exposure to joining the circus - Circus Boy, I so wanted to be Corky.
posted by tellurian at 3:34 PM on March 31, 2008

I KNOW that the animals are cared for but I hate to see them caged.

Don't mean to make you sadder, but circus history seems to be punctuated by one animal cruelty exposé after another, at least as soon as people started caring enough for that to happen.

Circuses sans animals, however, always seem to be ultra-cool.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:14 PM on March 31, 2008

This post covers a great deal of ground. Several links refer to Indian street performers, who are properly "buskers" and not circus performers.

We used to work with James Ernest, who coined the term "Contact Juggling" and who wrote the similarly entitled book. As beautiful as contact juggling is, I'm more a fan of chainsaw juggling.

Of all the circus acts I've seen, the greatest was one in a German circus, whose name I've sadly forgotten. The circus included a number of animal acts, including a VERY smart crow.

Presently a woman walked into the ring, wearing a mink coat. The crowd hushed slightly, perhaps slightly disdainful over this ostentatious display of wealth, or perhaps over the social tension involved in animal rights issues. Fur coats these days are often polarizing symbols. The performer milked it for all it was worth, then suddenly, the mink coat dissolved to become individual, well trained minks! They trained the little buggers to sit still and cling beside each other so effectively as to present the perfect illusion of a continuous coat! The minks disembarked the coat and ran offstage as a group. Absolutely stunning!

This page discusses perhaps the most famous circus poster of all time. I've been lucky enough to see the original, rather surprisingly displayed on a staircase wall...
posted by Tube at 5:03 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Charles Nelson Reilly and the Hartford Circus Fire: Actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was thirteen years old at the time, survived the fire and dramatized it in the film of his stage show, "The Life of Reilly". In a 1997 interview, Reilly said that he rarely attended the theater, despite being a director, since the sound of a large audience in a theater reminded him of the large crowd at the circus before the disaster. (from Wikipedia)
posted by not_on_display at 6:52 PM on March 31, 2008

Not taht anyone will ever know, but I asked my parents why I have recollections of attending a circus in a tent as a kid - it's because we did, in fact, attend a circus in a tent, in Chile around 1968 or 1969.
posted by mwhybark at 6:25 PM on April 5, 2008

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