A little over a century ago, President Woodrow Wilson attended the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Washington, D.C. With the election of 1916 just six months away, most Americans assumed the president would run again, but he had not officially announced his candidacy. As the circus band played “Hail to the Chief,” Wilson had an idea for a little showmanship. He took off his top hat and tossed it into the center ring. The audience understood the gesture, and the place went wild. And now, after 146 years, the iconic Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced last month that it would close the center ring and put its legendary show to pasture after one final season.
Whether that is good or bad news, of course, depends on your point of view. Activists have protested the touring spectacle for years because of its use of performing animals, filing injunctions in city after city to keep the entertainment giant tied up in the courts. I can’t help but wonder how long P. T. Barnum would have kept fighting. The bombastic showman courted controversy his whole life. He once glued the skeleton of a monkey to the skeleton of a fish and claimed to have discovered a “Fiji Mermaid.”
When he exhibited the fake remains in his New York museum in 1842, Barnum wrote unsigned letters to the newspapers denouncing his own exhibition as a fraud. Then he wrote other anonymous letters defending it. Thousands flocked to his museum just to see what the ingenious ballyhoo was all about. While wandering throughout the building — which contained everything from modern appliances to bearded ladies to flea circuses — many visitors followed a sign that said “To the Egress.” One by one they walked through a marked door, hoping to find out what kind of strange creature the “egress” was, only to discover that it was the Latin word for “exit.” Duped by Barnum’s gag, visitors always had a good laugh. That is, until they realized that they had to pay another admission fee to get back into the museum.
Ten years after putting his show on the road, the showman teamed up with James Bailey in 1881, and their circus empire eventually merged with one started by five brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin. The two shows traveled separately until 1919, when together they formed the extravaganza that nearly survived long enough to celebrate its sesquicentennial, a word that, you’ll be pleased to know, I typed correctly the first time without spell-check.
Profits for the RBB & B Circus have been declining for some time, a twin victim of two changes in American culture. The first is the increasing distaste people have for the spectacle of performing animals. Though circus folk dearly love the animals in their care and insist that they are not abused in any way, today’s audiences are less and less comfortable with the idea of lions jumping through flaming hoops while humans munch cotton candy in the stands.
The other change, I believe, has to do with a complete reversal in how the American public feels about clowns. There is a concept in linguistics called pejoration. Words often change meaning over time, and when a word goes from a positive connotation to a negative one, that’s called pejoration. The word “silly,” for example, meant “holy” or “blessed” in the Middle Ages, but these days it’s no spiritual compliment to call someone that. Similarly, the word “petty” once simply meant “small in size.” But now it has degenerated in usage to mean “trivial.” The opposite phenomenon, by the way, is called amelioration.
I realize that some readers may not have been expecting linguistic terminology in today’s column. I should have given you a trigger warning. And speaking of trigger warnings, the next two paragraphs will be about clowns. So if any readers need to curl up into a ball, I understand.
You see, as I have lamented in a previous column, the once beloved reputation of the American clown has gone belly up. Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton, Bozo, and Clarabell might all be looking for work in today’s clownaphobic world. A series of bizarre incidents last year in which people in white makeup and red noses were caught stalking various neighborhoods has not helped, but public opinion had been turning against clowns for years.
An entire generation has grown up with an obsession for labeling things as “creepy,” and grown men in oversized shoes were a perfect target for the favorite Millennial put-down. In the past, if you were said to be “clowning around,” that simply meant you were engaged in playful antics. Maybe they involved a squirting flower or a whoopee cushion or a banana cream pie.
But now, if you clown around, someone will call the police. So with the double whammy of public distaste for elephants in sparkly headdresses and nationwide hysteria over adults in rainbow wigs, the RBB & B was doomed.
And I for one say it’s a shame. The circus was the only place many people got to see live elephants or tigers, and the skills of these animals can be quite dazzling. For generations, the smell of sawdust and peanuts has drawn huge crowds to what was billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The circus will survive and adapt, of course. Minus the animals, and maybe with a little less white face paint. But those talented acrobats, trick cyclists, jugglers, trapeze artists and comedians will carry on their craft and delight us well into the next century. That is, until the OSHA regulators show up to take down the high wires.