That’s it. Time to eat my words, and then wash them down with Kool-Aid. A few weeks ago I posted an item here in praise of the Cole Brothers Circus, one that elevated that show at the expense of the vastly bigger, badder Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey outfit. But yesterday, I saw the latter organization’s tented show Boom-a-Ring out at Coney Island, and I have to reverse myself. While still not the circus of my dreams, it sets a new high water mark.
Almost literally. Tropical Storm Daniel was dumping sheets of rain on Coney Island when the boys and I arrived for our annual pilgrimage there, making the circus the only thing doing. The trek from the subway station to the tent (which is pitched on the other side of Keyspan Park, an effortless jaunt on a normal day) was an epic trial. By the time we got to the box office, the three of us were soaked to the bones and shivering. We desperately needed things to start going right.
And then, miraculously, they did. First, the advertised ten dollar seats proved not to be a fable. Hilariously, we were given the absolute worst seats in the house. But in a one ring circus the worst is still great, and besides, we moved twenty rows down during intermission. Every aspect of the show turned out pleasant like this. We’d gotten there an hour early to purchase our tickets, thinking we’d get some lunch at Nathan’s before the show started. The kids didn’t want to go back out in the rain however. That was fine; I’d forgotten about the Ringling Bros. pre-show, when the children get to meet the performers in the ring. This is usually Bedlam, a nightmarish cacophony of squalling brats and pushy New York parents clambering over one another in order to trample the apprentice clowns. But on this day, because of the storm, my kids and I shared the stars of the circus with a few dozen other well-behaved tykes and their parents. The boys were still hungry of course, and though everything at Ringling Bros. is famously overpriced, even that went right. Though the popcorn was six dollars a box, when I handed the candy butcher a twenty, he gave me back $24 in change. I found myself having to lecture the man on the art of grifting.
And we still haven’t gotten to the show! Imagine the resources of the Ringling Bros. show in the service of a more tasteful artistic vision reminiscent of more straightened one ring tented shows like Cole Bros. and Big Apple Circus. Well, perhaps “reminiscent” is less apt than “stolen from”. But there is a fine old tradition of such theft in show business! Thus I didn’t exactly mind it when the size, shape and color of the Ringling Bros. tent is almost exactly the same as Big Apple’s, and the stage set and band configuration are based on Big Apple’s aesthetic. (The gobos in the shape of exploding cartoon stars pointed at the roof of the tent were perhaps taking the theft a bit far, however). Likewise, beginning the show with the National Anthem as a pretty girl rode around the ring on an elephant carrying an American flag is a touch that first made me fall in love with Cole Bros. No matter! It’s a terrific show! So much better watching six clowns you can recognize and appreciate, rather than six dozen ones scrambling and mugging and leaving you fondly gazing at the exit signs. My boy Charlie sharply recognized Justin Case, the French accented trick cyclist from Big Apple. But there’s so much in this show that you won’t find in its more impecunious competitors. Big Apple has fired all their performing elephants – Ringling Bros. presents a trio. Even better, Ringling Bros. is one of the few shows that still presents big cats – eight or so white tigers who leap over one another and grimace and pose ferociously on command. As a topper, the gorgeous tiger-tamer goes directly from the cage into the stratosphere, where she performs on trapeze. Other memorable moments: a pack of performing dachsunds, a gentleman who does trick shots with a cross bow, tumblers, jugglers, and a trio of motorcycle daredevils who ride around the cage of death. These are all that spring to mind at this writing, although there was much more. I couldn’t take notes (my paper was too soggy) and I was too cheap to buy a program. And in the end, that was probably sinful of me. The thought that the three of us were on the receiving end of a show like that for $36 makes me feel like I’ve done the impossible – committed a swindle against the circus.
Why do I still hold out and say that it’s still not perfect? At this stage, it’s merely a matter of sound waves. I could do without the loudspeakers blaring top 40 hits during the pre-show, and the show’s original musical score was very much not to my liking. Music creates atmosphere. The circus is supposed to be romantic, it’s supposed to take you away to far away times and places. By definition, it should be old-fashioned. I want calliope! I want it to sound like a carousel or a John Philip Sousa marching band! The day I finally walk into an American circus that sounds as magical as it looks will be the day that I love it without reservation.