Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus – Over the Top
Frank Erwin Center, Austin TX • 8-20-09
Carl F Gauze
The circus isn’t exactly what it used to be, but that’s not a bad thing. A century ago, the circus train would roll into town and a fantastic troupe of performers, freaks and maybe even a few space aliens would magically appear for a few days. When they left, you knew a more fantastic world existed, one that you might live in someday. Heck, you might just run off with them today and leave hoeing potatoes to the rest of the family. But today, the weirdoes have all formed rock bands, the rest of us run whiney little blogs, and the circus looks more like a Broadway show. It’s more environmentally conscious, more musical, and still quite a dose of fun.
I haven’t been to Ringling Brothers since the mid ’60s, but the circus and I were both in Austin recently and I dropped in. The tent grew into a basket ball arena, they covered the saw dust with padded foam rubber, the Midway turned into a gift kiosk, and the Side Shows turned into a Meet and Greet the Animals event. They even replaced the exotic smell of stale grease and elephant poop with floor wax, toilet sanitizer, and teenagers drenched in Axe deodorant. At least they spared us the Jumbotron and the instant replay; you still have to pay attention in case someone falls or gets eaten by a tiger.
I arrived early enough to watch them prepare the elephants. They roll in the dust, and then a guy with a leaf blower cleans them off. Except for the big cats, the other livestock are housed next door, and Ringling plugs its Asian Elephant Conservation project. Then we troop into the air conditioning and find our seats. The circus floor is open to all preshow with photo ops with the clowns, a few jugglers, costumes for the kiddies, and an elephant doing an abstract painting. Eventually the cast shoo us up to our seats, and two of the principal clowns perform a warm up act. It involves a piano and a spot light, and mostly serves to get you looking at the stage.
Eventually the real show begins, and it relies on all the big bucks lighting and sound effects you’d expect in a professional stage performance. There are LED screens flashing patriotic bunting, rotating color projectors lighting the stage, and the Ringmaster rides around on a motorized platform that recalls Keith Moon’s mobile Wurlitzer in Tommy. There’s even a snippet of plot — chief clown Tom steals the Ringmaster’s hat and they battle over who runs the circus. When the Ringmaster rules, we get animal acts and aerialists, when Tom holds the hat his fellow clowns entertain.
They still present the classic circus acts, although in attenuated form. A decent trapeze acts includes what they claim as a Triple Aerial Somersault (I counted two turns, but there wasn’t any instant replay), The Amazing Silva did a very impressive “walking on the ceiling” routine 70 feet above a wholly inadequate looking safety mat, and we finished the first act with seven dirt bikes buzzing around inside a huge wire cage. Seven huge tigers and a very small-looking trainer opened the second act, and there was an elaborate troupe of Chinese acrobats who swung on poles and jumped between them using only their legs. I assume they all wore suitable personal protection.
My last circus was a three-ring event, with a constant flow of acts that you could barely keep up with. Curiously, in this multitasking information overload era, there was only a single act on at any time, although you might see some set up occurring in the shadows. Still, it’s live, high-risk entertainment, worth all the attention you can pay. The show never felt corny or sweet, although it always had the potential to lapse into something that would make you feel somehow superior. I brought along some reference children, and they all seemed to enjoy the chase for the Ring Master’s hat more than anything else. Music seem mostly prepackaged — the brass band was replaced by a drummer and some midi files, all synced to the LED light show. There were even pyrotechnics, something which never would have happened in the old days of canvas tents water-proofed with paraffin dissolved in gasoline. The circus is still with us, stripped down and modernized, more environmentally aware than I recall, and still a great place to take the whole family.
Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus: www.ringling.com