I have been searching for a quote that came up in Ken Burn’s masterpiece documentary, Baseball, that speaks about the beautiful constancy of the game. That if you lived, for example, in Chicago, you might be watching the Cubs play, a team that has played in the city of Chicago since 1876, the founding of the National League. A child today of 5 or 6 years old can see the same team his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather watched, a mere 11 years after the Civil War ended. That’s amazing continuity.
Of course, baseball is also a beautiful reminder that true change is the only real constant in the universe. Your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather might have watched the Giants in New York, but you only get to call them the home team if your family relocated to San Francisco. You may have been one of the few fans of the Braves in Boston … but that was two cities ago for the current Atlanta team. Today we have designated hitters and relief pitchers, and big screen advertising in Wrigley Field. Some change is good, others, not so much.
Another institution, one that dates to ancient times, but became wholly Americanized in its own right, is the circus. And, of course, no organization elevated the circus in America like Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth. This circus can trace its origin back to at least 1808! The US Capitol was only 8 years old at that time, and the ink on the Constitution was barely dry! As an institution, the circus has changed a lot … they haven’t performed under an actual Big Top since the 1950s … and the sideshow has been gone since about that time. They survived the disaster of the Great Fire in Hartford in 1944 where the canvas of the tent caught fire and killed over 150 people … the circus spent their profits for the next decade paying off claims for that. Nonetheless, as sports and films and television and the internet became entertainment, the circus survived. A continuity of over two centuries! There are very few non-government entities in the United States that can trace their roots back so far, and still claim such a track record of being on top.
Alas, so little is forever. Tonight, Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus will perform its final show in New York. I’ve only been to the circus once, as a young boy, and I barely remember it. But there is a certain sadness linked to seeing a survivor need to give in to the inevitability of change. Certainly, many of their skilled performers will find it difficult to ply their tradecraft outside the realm of the circus, and there is some concern that the artistry of the aerialists, jugglers, clowns, and others will start to be lost without a venue to practice and enthrall crowds. In an era where there is greater sensitivity to the treatment of animals, trained animal acts, the bread and butter of the circus forever, has cut into attendance as people refused to pay to see the animals, and as the circus gave in and cut back on animal acts, people stopped paying to see strictly human performers. It was ultimately a lose-lose scenario. I am glad that the animals aren’t being subject to the degree of captivity that they were in … you just wish there were an alternative. However, the universe tends to not always present alternatives.
Of course this does not mean an end to circuses … not by a long shot. RBBaB tended to play the big cities (the Chicago Bulls, in 2016-17,took the last of their “circus roadtrips” which forced the Bulls on the road for a prolonged period of time while Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey played the old Chicago Stadium, and later the United-Jordan Center). However there are a number of smaller circuses that play smaller towns, and from what I have read, have strong reputations. No doubt, some of these smaller regional shows will expand to fill the vacuum, and may create new shows that capture the imagination of new generations.
Tonight is also graduation for my school, and I will be there to literally shove the graduates as their name is called. I didn’t have many seniors this year, but they have been an overall phenomenal group to work with, so unlike last year, I will genuinely miss this group. School teachers really do understand the idea that endings are just the start of beginnings.