Like many baby boomers, I grew up with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I have memories of me as a child sitting with my family in the Boston Garden to watch “The Greatest Show on Earth.” My children, unfortunately, won’t be able to share those generational memories.
The circus is dead. As of the end of May, the Ringing Bros. show will shut down forever. The ripples of this generational and cultural loss cannot easily be expressed or measured. It shouldn’t be understated, either.
“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks — such as providing a traveling school for performers’ children— are throwbacks to another era. “It’s a different model that we can’t see how it works in today’s world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price. So you’ve got all these things working against it.”
Maybe time is one competitor, but people find ways to pay for entertainment, and most media evolve to fit the various models–even traveling by train and living in RV’s. I think the real competitor is the little rectangular objects we hold in our hands and check compulsively every five minutes. I think it was YouTube and Facebook and Twitter that killed the circus.
My kids’ favorite YouTube sensation is called the “Hydraulic Press Channel.” They like watching this (Russian? Eastern European?) guy with a hydraulic press crush stuff. People send him things to crush. He’s made so much money from Google on his views that he can afford new cameras, new rigs, and probably a new press. For all I know, filming himself crushing things is now all he does; doing shop work is too banal and unproductive, finance-wise.
I suppose the circus could bring in YouTube stars, Parkour, and a hydraulic press show to satisfy this itch, but the problem is YouTube moves faster than a century-plus-old circus made up of tight-knit performers who see each other as family.
Social and technological evolution is not part of the circus DNA, because that belongs to outsiders who don’t live the circus life. Bringing in new people is a careful and very social process. YouTube is–well, to say it plainly: antisocial. Circuses have audiences within feet of them, applauding. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have followers and views and comments from thousands of miles away.
As our society has become more technologically connected, we’ve become more socially isolated. There’s just no room for the circus to mold into that structure without breaking its unique circusy-ness. And there’s no room for the YouTube generation to fit two or three hours of sensory overload, amazing acts, popcorn and animals into a family tradition–at least not without a the full theme-park destination.
Unfortunately, Circus World has been tried, and failed miserably. (I have memories of it, one of the last “Old Florida” quirky attractions of the 70’s, that morphed into the truly terrible Boardwalk & Baseball, and is now a residential subdivision.)
Now I know some will say that there are still circuses in America. There are shows that travel to county fairs, and some smaller shows that play other venues. But there was really only one big show, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The others are midway sideshows compared to Ringling Bros.
I knew the show’s days were numbered when the elephants departed last year. Without elephants, the plug holding the magic in was pulled, and inevitably it drained out. We wave goodbye to an American institution and one of the last cultural markers of a time gone by. Now back to the hydraulic press.