My father took me to see Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the old Madison Square Garden in the early 1960s. What a wondrous day! First the smell of the cotton candy and peanuts embrace you, then it's on to the Side Show, with the giant (we bought a giant brass "finger" ring he was selling), and Lady Estelline the Sword Swallower (we bought a small silver cocktail sword that pierced a photo of her).
Then it was into the big top for the real show. My god, the elephants! The majesty of the beasts. You never forget those sights, sounds, and smells when you're 5 or 6 years old.
The circus is not what it used to be in those innocent times. One of the first things to go was the Side Show. Misguided folks forced it out of the circus and only succeeded in ruining the livelihoods of the performers, throwing them out of work.
But we still had the pleasure of taking our daughter to see "the greatest show on earth" when they passed through our town over the past decade, and she was mesmerized by all of it, especially the parade of elephants.
There's a wonderful photo essay in the New York Times this week about Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Part of it is about the elephants being forced out of the show by local laws. I'm no expert at animal behavior (other than the domesticated house cat), and the only thing I really know about elephants is what's obvious: they're highly socialized and intelligent animals who live in groups. Regardless of what anyone thinks, for better or worse, the elephants will vanish from the ring by 2018. So take your kids to the circus and see the elephants while you can. They'll remember it always.
There's an excellent bit of writing in the Times piece by Taffy Brodesser-Aknerm which confronts the challenges faced by the notion of a circus in the digital age:
It is an amazing thing to see someone fly through the air, but it's harder to convey that fact to people who believe they are watching people fly through the air on-screen all the time. You can't convince children who watch shows with talking animals that it is an incredible thing just to see an elephant play ball with another elephant, or to see a tiger simply not eat his trainer. It's getting harder to convince adults, too. Somehow, over the past few decades, we've forgotten how to be impressed by physical achievements, incredible feats that no normal person can do. We have forgotten how to prize an act in which a performer risks his life gracefully — to understand that it is both the risk and the grace that make it something truly astonishing. Nowadays, you go to Times Square, and you don't see people juggling and eating fire and doing delightful busking; you see people in superhero and Elmo costumes doing nothing but existing off versions of something that appears in movies, on TVs and in toy stores. … The circus is the last bulwark against all that.
So go! Buy a ticket, smell the cotton candy, see the wire walkers and aerialists, fear for the lion tamer, and say goodbye to the elephants. Get your tickets right here.