One of the pitfalls of middle-age is witnessing the death of cherished traditions and pastimes. I know I am not the only one around who misses video stores, drive-in movies, full-service gas stations, etc., etc. The latest American tradition to bite the dust is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After 146 years, the self-described
"Greatest Show on Earth" will close forever in May.
There will continue to be circuses, of course, but the demise of Ringling Brothers, America's gold standard in circus entertainment, does not bode well for the whole concept. Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment (owners of Ringling Brothers since 1967) cited multiple factors in their decision to close, among them high operating costs and declining ticket sales due to "changing tastes" (according to an Associated Press article). Also mentioned as a factor was ongoing battles with animal rights groups. The circus has been targeted in recent years by critics who claim that forcing animals to perform is cruel.
Sigh...Score another one for political correctness. While I can't swear that no animal has never suffered abuse or discomfort, I have no doubt that those who dedicate their lives to training and performing with animals do so out of love for the creatures. The circus world is an insulated, unconventional one, and those workers enjoy a bond with their craft and each other and their animals that few of us will ever understand. These animals are no doubt their joy and livelihood. Till May, at least.
Indeed, the very idea of a circus seems a throwback to a Tom Sawyer America, if not outdated then curiously quaint. Miley Cyrus' gyrations are not out of place in modern America, but a circus? Who thought a circus would ever be controversial? The PC left will give radical Islamic terrorists the benefit of every doubt, but not circus trainers. OK, that comment is a bit of a stretch, but it is no less true that multi-culturalism, which preaches open-mindedness, has so little regard for the benchmarks of a distinct American culture. Case in point: the Boy Scouts were actually booed at a major party's convention a few years back (guess which party?).
Granted, circuses have origins and life outside of America, but Ringling Brothers boasts a heritage and attitude that is distinctly American. Check out the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1952. The Greatest Show on Earth
is colorful, over-the-top (over the big top?), corny - and great fun! Yes, it proves the ultimate cliche that circuses are for children of all ages - and no one nurtures that sense of childhood wonder better than Ringling Brothers.
But, alas, we live in an age of smart phones and instant, hand-held entertainment. According to the AP, in 1967 the show ran just under three hours. Today it runs two hours and seven minutes, with the longest segment, a tiger act, at twelve minutes. "Try getting a three or four-year-old today to sit for twelve minutes," says Feld.
Sad but true. Don't we value entertainment more when it is not so easily accessible? Some conservatives will not broach any criticism of technological advancement. I applaud the benefits of smart phones and computers as much as the next guy, but I am also one who embraces culture and laments the erosion of tradition. For binding communities and generations, no solitary, time-draining computer game can beat cotton candy and a circus, but that's just my humble opinion. Thanks, Ringling Brothers for well over 100 great years. Be here in his space when the next great hallmark falls. See you soon.