Val Lauder: The first time I went to the circus was in the 1930s
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show was so important that FDR exempted it from train travel restrictions during WWII
Editor’s Note: Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author of “The Back Page: The Personal Face of History.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
I spent my childhood summers with my maternal grandparents, who had a cottage on one of the lakes outside Ann Arbor, Michigan and a home in town on Packard Street. At the lake, it was lazy summer days. Daily swims, Grandma Mann watching over me. Weekends, Grandpa Mann took me to get rainbow ice cream cones. Mondays, sometimes we went back to town with Grandpa Mann, but always the week the circus came to town.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announcement of its final performance this May has brought back memories of those circus visits — mixed nicely with joy and wonder — wrapped in nostalgia for the form of entertainment that brought pleasure to millions for more than 200 years.
President George Washington was one of the first. He attended a performance of the first circus of its kind in America, the John Ricketts Circus, in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, April 24, 1793.
For the record – granted, it’s not quite as historical – Grandma Mann and I went in the early and mid 1930s.
It felt like the circus came to me. The route to the fairground went down Packard Street, past Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I could watch the parade from the big picture window in the parlor or the front porch; it was high enough that I had a perfect view.
Everyone was intrigued by the grand display of the parade.
“Gaily painted circus wagons carrying huge tents,” said the Ann Arbor News on August 13, 1935, “and others bearing the menagerie of all types of wild animals travelled through the city streets this morning between the Michigan Central railroad and the Packard St. show grounds as the Al G. Barnes Circus arrived for performances this afternoon and tonight.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey owned the Barnes Circus, but it still traveled under its own name. Its posters proclaimed: A REAL RAILROAD CIRCUS … Travels on 2 Special Trains … 18 ELEPHANTS, COUNT ‘EM. It boasted a menagerie and traveling zoo that included zebras, tigers, lions, camels, leopards, hippos, panthers, bears, hyenas, monkeys, sea lions, “and other creatures.”
I especially remember the lions and tigers. Their circus wagons were red with decorative gilt leaf, the gold aglow in the morning sun, Technicolor bright. I can still see the big cats pacing back and forth — in that slinky, feline way — behind the iron bars. Back and forth they paced with nowhere to go.
Because Grandpa Mann put a circus poster in his store window, he was given free tickets, and Grandma Mann and I went to the afternoon performance. We walked through the midway of special attractions and food stands, a staple of circuses in those days, and Grandma Mann firmly clutched my hand so she wouldn’t lose me. And I, as children do, had to skip to keep up. The smell of popcorn and sawdust was in the air.
We stopped at the pink cotton candy stand and watched the man swirling a cardboard cone along the sides of the big copper bowl. I got to eat wisps of pink candy that would turn to sugar crystals on my tongue and lips. And we stopped to buy a bag of peanuts – a white bag about the size of a 3x5 index card – with peanuts you had to shuck.
As we watched the clowns in their baggy pants and floppy shoes dancing around with big smiles – or tears – painted on their faces, everyone sat on wooden bleachers and absently dropped the shucks onto the grass. Or we let the shells fall as we gazed at the trapeze artists up above, not far below the peak of the huge tent. I remember that the canvas seemed translucent in the light of the afternoon sun. And you could see the dark strips of the seams. “The Big Top.”
The center ring was the one with the main attractions.
That’s where you’d see the lions and tigers. The trainer, in a drum major-like uniform, would crack a whip to get them to jump up on the stools set out around the wire enclosure. Occasionally, there was a moment of resistance. A hold-your-breath moment. The lion’s or tiger’s lower lip curling in a snarl, teeth showing, and, for all the crowd noise, a distinct growl. Another crack of the whip. Sometimes with a third, even fourth, the lion or tiger jumped up and sat.
It was hard to know what to watch because in another ring women in pink costumes and tights were standing, bareback, atop horses circling that ring. The horses moved with a prance – head angled, steps high – that I associated with the wooden horses on merry-go-rounds. And in another ring clowns would be putting out a fire in the small house they circled.
A band played much of the time, so there was a decided ooom-pah-pah quality as the trapeze artists performed high above, punctuated by ooooohs and aaaaaahs and OH! when one flew through the air – always safely caught – to a synchronized sigh of relief from the audience.
I wasn’t the only one who loved the circus.
In 1942, when World War II brought restrictions on rail travel to facilitate the shipment of war materials and movement of troop trains, the circus was considered such a national pastime and morale booster that President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted a special dispensation for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey train.
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After the war the circus came, 1946 as I recall, to perform at the Chicago Stadium. I was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News then and I was given tickets, so I took a friend. I still liked the tigers and the prancing horses with their riders. The trapeze acts however were higher up now. Their swings hung from the steel rafters, and—especially, when they worked without a net – it seemed too dangerous for me to enjoy. So much so, I never went again.
Still, I have the memories of the cotton candy and peanut-filled afternoons with Grandma Mann
Another time, another era gone.
And when the Ringling Bros. circus goes dark after the 7 p.m. performance in the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island May 21, there’ll be only memories for everyone.