Goodbye Mr. Ringling.
Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus
Amalie Arena, Tampa • January 30, 2017
by Bob Pomeroy
Circus Day was a semi-holiday when I was a kid. The Shrine Circus came to Grand Rapids every spring. Circus Day was a get out of school free pass. We’d take the bus downtown and go to the old Civic Auditorium to see the show. The Shrine Circus wasn’t Ringling Brothers. They played smaller venues, but they had everything you’d expect. Lions, elephants, high wire acts, trapeze artists, a brass band and a Ringmaster introducing all the acts. Even when I got to be a sophisticated 5th grader, I still went to the circus because, well, it’s what you did in the springtime.
I have to admit, I haven’t gone to the circus many times since those days in elementary school. Circus Day didn’t extend to middle and high school, so there wasn’t the incentive of a day off from school anymore. Besides, I was a sophisticated teenager. Circus was for kids.
Much later, I caught the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in St. Petersburg. The Circus is part of the cultural lore of the Tampa Bay area. Venice, Sarasota, Gibsonton are all permanently linked to the circus. I was dating a woman with a young child in the early ’90s and that was my excuse to finally check out The Greatest Show on Earth.
Times change and the circus isn’t what it used to be. There is a lot more competition for the entertainment dollar. Where once, the only place to see crazy people doing death defying acts was the big top, now you have You Tube. Once the main draw at a circus, animal acts have been recognized as often cruel and have been disappearing. The elephants are retired now. In just a few months, The Greatest Show on Earth will be no more. So on January 30th, I joined some friends to see the very last performance by the Ringling Brothers Circus in Tampa.
Circus Extreme is the name of the last Ringling production. The name gives a hint at the changes that have come to the circus in the decades since cut school to see the show. Circus Extreme borrows from X Games with BMX stunt riders replacing the lion tamer. The influence of the modern Cirque movement is everywhere, from the story thread that runs through the show, to the merging of acts for more of a sensory overload to the rock band replacing the old brass band.
It was different, but it was still a Ringling Circus. Kristen Michelle Wilson, the first female ringmaster was more than just the MC is a fancy jacket. She spun the story uniting the acts. Narrating the adventure of searching for the best acts from around the world using story and song. She did an amazing job.
Some of the acts looked tired. The tigers were the only real old school animal act, and they looked ready to retire. Their trainer said that his captive born tigers have been with him for 12 years. The tigers looked cute and a little bored, like they knew their time in the ring was almost over. Tigers being cute are a world away from the death defying daring of a classic big cat act. By comparison, the poodle act that followed seemed energized and appropriately comic. The tiger trainer took a few minutes at the end of his act to acknowledge that this was the last time he’s ever performing in Tampa. Ringmaster Wilson also acknowledged the passing of an era at the end of the show. It’s the end of a 146-year-old tradition. The circus train will never be back in Tampa.
Well, that may not be exactly true. Circus is a culture unto itself. Back in the 1950’s the death of the circus was announced when Ringling gave up the tent show for arenas. While the biggest show has folded tent for the last time, other shows carry on. And while the traditional circus has been fading, modern variations like Cirque du Soleil have been steadily gaining in popularity. So while January 30th was the end of the Ringling era in Tampa, some form of the show (circus) will go on. ◼