Well, another great American institution has fallen to our changing times. You’ve probably seen the news — after 146 years the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down.
Declining attendance, growing expenses and the attacks of animal rights groups — they made the circus get rid of its elephants a few years ago — all contributed to this great tradition’s demise.
I remember going to the circus when I was little. Like almost all kids growing up decades ago, I loved the circus. The trapeze artists were thrilling, the elephants were magnificent, the lion tamers were brave, the girls who rode the handsome horses around center ring were beautiful and the cotton candy was good and sticky.
Oh, I also loved to count the number of clowns who fit into those tiny little autos. It sometimes seemed as if they would never stop exiting the diminutive vehicle.
The circuses also had what they called side shows in the old days, where unfortunate accidents of nature, known then as freaks, were put on display. It was fascinating to see the bearded lady, the boy with no arms or legs and the midgets. It all seems terribly cruel in retrospect, but the circus did provide those poor folks with a job and somewhat of a sense of pride in being different, I believe.
I remember one side-show, however, that scared the heck out of me. They were displaying what was disparagingly called a pinhead, a person of very low IQ whose head came to a point. They are properly known as microcephalics, I believe. Anyway, one woman with that condition was seated in a chair when my mother, my older sister and I entered the tent. The woman then rose up, looking directly at me, and started walking toward us. I had no idea what the poor person’s intention was, but I yelled and ran out, with mother and sister following.
That memory does not cloud my overall very pleasant recollections of the circus, however.
Also in those days there were what we called street fairs, today known as carnivals. They had adult and kiddie rides, all sorts of games of skill and chance that you could never win, and cheap, unhealthy eats. And I loved them even more than circuses.
In Baton Rouge they would locate in an area known as Bogan’s Pasture and as soon as I saw them setting up, I was ready to go. “Street fair’s here, street fair’s here, Mommie,” I’d yell. And dear old mom would invariably take me to the fair, at least one time, sometimes more.
One fair had a picture tent, where they’d shoot your photo in front of various props. Mother and I went in one and she chose to have us pose behind jail bars. Mother did a great job of posing like a tough gun moll. But I must have wondered if we were really in jail, because the expression on my face is one of combined fear and partial disbelief. I still have that photo in a box somewhere and every few years I run across it and laugh.
Those days are gone forever. Even the great old Pontchartrain Beach amusement park in New Orleans closed years ago, although it was open long enough that my girls could enjoy it as youngsters.
But, this is the 21st century. Why would any kid want to go see a man on the flying trapeze or a pretty lady riding a horse standing up when a great new video game is available?