Magic Under the Big Top

Sawdust. Greasepaint. The wire stretched tautly high above the center ring.

The circus was never about the animals for me. It was about magic, make believe and those daring young men on the flying trapeze. Once upon a time it really was “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Last week’s news that after 146 years, the curtain was coming down on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, triggered a flood of memories.

While the industry’s sordid history of its deplorable treatment of animals is undeniable and inexcusable, the circus of my childhood was more than bullhooks and elephants.

I can still remember clutching my dad’s hand tightly as we went through the turnstile at the old Spokane Coliseum. My parents had taken me to the El Katif Shrine circus before, but this was my first exposure to the crème de la crème of circus magic – Ringling Bros. – the big time.

Even as a kid I loved old movies, and I’d seen the glamour and pathos of the circus in films like the Academy Award-winning “The Greatest Show on Earth” and Disney’s “Dumbo.”

But I’d recently seen “Trapeze” on television and I was enthralled with the idea of flinging myself through the air into the waiting hands of the well-muscled Burt Lancaster or pretty boy Tony Curtis.

My friends and I played “circus” on the playground at recess at Jefferson Elementary. We’d swing higher and higher, until the swing set rocked with our rhythm, then we’d let go of the chain and sail through the air to land in the gravel, hoping to nail a dismount worthy of Ringling Bros.

Mostly, we just got rocks in our shoes and occasional bloody knees and skinned palms.

Under the big top of the Coliseum, I sat entranced. From the red-coated ringmaster with his shiny black top hat, to dozens of clowns in a tiny car, to the lovely ladies in sparkling costumes riding atop high-stepping steeds, the circus held me in its grip. My eyes glittered like the sequins on the tightrope walker’s tutu as I tried to absorb the pageantry.

And then Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big cats took the floor. He strode into the center ring with a leopard around his shoulders, dimples flashing, blond hair flowing, bronzed abs rippling under the lights. Pure showmanship and undiluted magic.

I saw several other circuses, but nothing ever measured up to the first time I saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

However, by the time I reached my teens my Gunther Gebel-Williams poster had been replaced by Andy Gibb and Leif Garrett posters – the gaudy glow of the circus had dimmed, replaced by the flashing lights of disco fever.

Later, as a busy mom of four sons, my home often seemed like a three-ring circus complete with roaring animals and stunts as breathtaking as a toddler scaling a teetering bookcase. I had neither the time nor the inclination to leave my house to see one. My parents took my oldest son once, but my youngest at 17, has never been to the circus.

Now it looks as though he never will.

I’m OK with that, but I wonder what his generation’s equivalent will be. Running away to appear on “America’s Got Talent” doesn’t have the same allure.

Sure, they can watch death-defying stunts on YouTube, but seeing Johnny Knoxville catapulted in a Porta Potty will never equate to watching an aerial acrobat soar high above the ground, spinning into a triple somersault, stretching to grab his partner’s waiting hands.

In fact, today’s kids seem to have their eyes on electronic screens from the moment they wake up until the moment the clock on their cellphones, Kindles or iPads tell them it’s time to go to sleep.

Perhaps that was the best thing about the circus – it got us out of our houses, away from our screens and caused us to look up for just a moment.

 

Cindy Hval can be reached at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

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