For #WorldCircusDay: The Circus, TV and Me

I will never doubt my self-worth ever again. I had some dim memories in my head of a certain television program of my youth, and I cannot TELL you the amount of digging I had to do this morning to excavate proof of its existence. The show’s name was Circus! — and just try to google that, or even look it up on IMDB, which seems to sort according to traffic. I had forgotten that Bert Parks had hosted it, but fortunately I have some old fashioned technology in the house (books) and a couple of these mentioned the show and helped me focus my search.

Parks is best remembered today by older people as the host of the Miss America Pageant back in the day, but he M.C.’d all sorts of stuff, from holiday parades to variety shows. Here’s an item I found of him hosting a 1960 telecast of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. This was an instructive find, as this show is not listed among his IMDB credits. These databases are not as complete as we may have assumed.

Now. The show I recall watching, as I said, was called Circus! It was a syndicated program that ran from 1971 through 1973 (when I was between the ages of six and eight). I remember the show pretty well, so I wonder if the syndication lasted longer than the original production. At any rate, the show featured footage of performances at circuses all over the world, and was probably some of my earliest exposure to the art form. It pretty much established my relationship to the form, which consists of something like a mixture of hope, boredom, dissatisfaction, and, inexplicably, addiction. My favorite way to experience circus is to read about it in books. For real. That is where it reaches its apogee in my imagination. Second best would be live performance, where I have indeed been startled, amazed, amused, and thrilled — but only a fraction of the time. The worst way to experience it? Is on screen, especially the small screen. When the frame contains trapeze artists and tightrope walkers but no sense of scale or height, it’s about as enjoyable as listening to a bar of chocolate. Circus on TV is not the best idea.

At any rate, I was excited though to come across this little artifact in a 1970 TV Guide, advertising a “centennial” telecast of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus on NBC. I put centennial in quotes (though they don’t) because, while the Ringling Brothers circus had indeed been founded by 1870, they had not yet merged with the Barnum and Bailey organization. At any rate, it was a poignant find, give that circus’s recent folding. Fun to see human cannonball Emannuale Zacchini among the performers, as well as well as the unicycle basketball team the King Charles Troupe, which I have seen live a couple of times.

And while we’re on the topic, I would be remiss in not mentioning another circus show I used to watch.

Circus of the Stars was a series of 19 specials that aired on CBS between 1977 and 1994. Its gimmicky gimmick was that dilettante celebrities were taught circus skills and then performed them on national television, which must have ENRAGED actual circus professionals. To be fair, some of these celebrities may have possessed actual skills as a matter of course, but when you go down the lost of the hundreds of “stars” who appeared on the show, most of whom could barely act or sing let alone do circus tricks, one doubts it. The people who appeared on the show the greatest number of times included Marty Allen, Brooke Shields, Marjoe Gortner, Jamie Farr, Merv Griffin, and Valerie Perrine. You want any of these people on the bucket brigade when someone throws a lit cigar in the sawdust? Well, maybe Marjoe, but not the rest of ’em.

The 2010 PBS show Circus, however, (featuring my friend Glen Heroy) however did take a much more compelling approach. It was a reality show, about the behind-the-scenes aspects, the history and the human drama. That’s what TV does well. For a good electronic circus show, I think you will have to wait for VR and holograms.

Happy World Circus Day!