A “tents” moment in history for the circus
Friday, January 27, 2017 4:00 AM
There are more sad clown faces than usual at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus this month. RBBB, The Greatest Show on Earth, is closing after 146 years.
No one is sadder or more shocked by the news than Don West of Fishers. Don owns one of the premier collections of carnival and circus memorabilia in the Midwest. His lower level is filled with eye candy for anyone who has ever ridden a roller coaster, seen a sideshow or gone to a circus.
Don started out as a young man doing traditional model railroad collecting, but somewhere along the line he got off track. Ironically, it was after his change in direction that he learned circuses and carnivals ran in his family, way back to his great-great-uncle and grandfather, who owned a sideshow. “That’s when I knew it was in my blood,” he says.
His first carnival model was a small die-cast replica of a Tilt-A-Whirl which is still his favorite piece. But now his home is filled with models of more than 100 rides and attractions, virtually all in working order. There are tiny replicas of sideshows, food stands and fun houses.
He also has a workshop where he constructs his models from kits or, in some cases, builds them from scratch, often combining parts from different sets. “It can take a hundred hours to build one of these rides,” says West, who enhances the final product by repainting each part to make it look even more authentic.
Much of Don’s memorabilia is from RBBB: circus trains made to scale, banners, lithographs, books, records, videos, cups, souvenirs, programs—stuff going back almost a century. Says Don of his collection: “It’s the greatest little show on Earth.” Sadly, there does not seem to be a future for people who collect. “Young people don’t want stuff anymore, they want experiences.”
Don affirms that several factors contributed to RBBB’s demise: pressure from animal rights groups over the years, and technology that puts entertainment right on your cell phone. “Getting kids to sit for three hours became more difficult,” he says.
Don does not want us to forget the important role the circus has played in our culture. It brought a sense of wonder and a taste of the exotic, often to rural communities that would have been otherwise isolated from such influences. Multicultural acts, people of different colors, sizes and shapes, animals that few had ever seen close-up—not to mention big bands and one of the first movie theaters in the country.
It was also the circus, Don explains, that helped teach the United States government how to effectively load and unload heavy cargo during WWII, something RBBB was especially adept at, having to perform that chore scores of times each year as they traveled from venue to venue with their trains. The circus has even affected our language: the word “jumbo” (meaning giant) originates from the huge elephant P.T. Barnum featured for many years. Throwing your hat in the ring? Grandstanding? Sideshow? All originally circus terms.
As a kid in New York, I probably saw the circus a half-dozen times at Madison Square Garden. I remember walking into the arena, overwhelmed by the colors, sounds and cotton-candy aroma, and awed by parading elephants, growling lions and tigers, dancing bears and trapeze artists. No vision had ever compared to that, though I must admit that years later, my first glimpse of the ball field in Yankee Stadium came awfully close.
And then there was Emmett Kelly, the most famous sad-faced clown in history. His iconic act at the end of the show involved sweeping up the tiny spot of light projected from high above the arena floor. His efforts always failed, but he was persistent and resolute. Like Emmet, circus fans still have faith, hoping that the circus will find a new owner. For so many who love the Greatest Show on Earth, they do not want it to end up in the dustpan of history.