Jack Brezina: Folding the big top
|By Jack Brezina - Contributing Writer | April 6, 2017
It was certainly a more innocent time, you know, when the circus came to town. Dozens of rail cars would pull into the Kitchener train station and the circus wagons would be driven off the flat beds.
I recall the smell of the animals, the excitement generated by the colourful wagons and the seemingly exotic characters who arrived with the troupe. It certainly seemed like the Greatest Show on Earth and it had arrived in our town.
Circuses knew how to promote the fact they were in town. Shortly after they had rolled off the train, the circus animals and performers were marching up King Street … elephants, wild cats … in cages, pretty girls in sequined outfits and posters promising a glimpse at some of the oddities of our world. There was no better way to spread the word that the circus was in town.
These memories flooded back when I read recently that as of May 12, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was grounding its travelling circus. Dwindling attendance, criticism (justified or not) over the treatment of its animals, and a world that requires a dramatic jolt every minute had spelled the end to a show that was still plodding along at the pace of its elephants. The big top with its feats of daring-do, roaring lions and clown filled cars, just couldn’t compete. Troupes like Circ de Soleil have stolen some of the circus crowds with their own high wire acts, only with much more showmanship. Want to see wild animals … the Internet and television can give you your fill. Clowns? … clowns seem to have become creepy rather than funny.
I recall a tent circus coming to the Stanhope Community Centre in the early 1980s. I think it was the Kelly Millar high grass circus. Another to Minden Fair Grounds. The Kinmount Gazette tells of train excursions at the turn of the century, yes that century, which took the curious to circus performances in Lindsay. But there is no record of train based circuses coming into the Highlands.
The Stanhope stop was sponsored by the Stanhope Fire Department. Citizens were invited to watch the tent raising and even help the roustabouts to set up the big top… lots of grunting and pulling on ropes as the canvas slowly rose up the pole over the sawdust. There was one elephant to help with the heavy lift. The pachyderm was featured under the big top and later plodded about stoically giving the youngsters a ride. Surprisingly, the Kelly Miller Circus, “America’s One Ring Wonder,” is still on the road, performing under a big top.
Several years later another itinerant circus came to Minden Fairgrounds. Its presence resulted in complaints about the condition of the animals which spent most of their time in cages. This was the early rumblings regarding circus animal welfare. This position would continue to gain momentum eventually forcing Barnum and Bailey to withdraw elephants from its shows, leading to the decline in attendance which resulted in the recent announcement.
The final performance this spring by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus marks the end of an era. Whether circuses appealed to you on not, there is no denying there always was magic in the air when the circus came to town.
Jack Brezina is a contributing writer for The Highlander.