R.I.P. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus

Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

HEY RUBE!

That’s what you yell when the circus is in trouble, when it’s all hands on deck, when it’s time to start a bucket brigade, or pull up stakes, or generally come to the aid of your family, which means everyone else who works at the circus. The news this morning, that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will be folding up for good in May hit me like a ton of bricks — as I just tweeted it feels like I’m on an elevator plunging 50 floors. While I may frequently knock the contemporary incarnation of the RBBB, I hope I’ve always made one thing clear…the Greatest Show on Earth is THE tent pole of American show business and even its theatre. It has been around that long. This is like a long line of grandfathers all dying at the same time. The organization itself is 146 years old, but the producers whose names are in the title were operating long before that. P.T. Barnum’s name has been above a title in show business somewhere for 181 years! The fact that this is happening at the same time as America’s Constitutional government is being dismantled feels symbolic, a mirror image. Everything we have ever known seems to be flying out the window. But as RBBB did so many times before, after the 1944 fire, and in the 1970s when the Feld Family re-invented it for the modern age, I think it is up to us to keep the show going. The show must go on. It is up to us, in whatever way we can do it. We MUST keep the best of our cultural traditions alive for our children.

I’ll be writing a much, much longer tribute to this important American institution and put it up when they go away for good in May. Mean time, you can refer individual posts I’ve written on P.T. Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, James A. Bailey, and various aspects of the show itself. Today I feel immense sadness, a bit of fear (untethered, in a way, in freefall), but also resolved to address this somehow.

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3 Responses to “R.I.P. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus”

  1. maestrolm Says:

    Just to throw a little more history on the fire, my late friend Charles Nelson Reilly told me many years ago of the 1944 Hartford fire – which he experienced first hand as a child. Fascinating story – and Charlie also told it in his one-man show, which is available on DVD.

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    • Thanks! I never knew he’d been there. I’d love to see his one-man show anyway, and this adds incentive!

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      • maestrolm Says:

        It’s well worth it, Trav! I really was tickled and honored to know him; my wife had had a dream years before I knew HER that some day her “future husband” would be directed by Charlie. Strange dream for a high school kid, but eventually it did come to pass – and we became good friends. Amazing raconteur and one of contemporary theatre’s great minds – a fact which is unfortunately unknown to so many people who only knew him as that goofball on Match Game. Glad to know you’re now compelled to see Charlie’s show – I know you’ll enjoy it in its entirety, and especially for how he handles the Hartford fire.

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