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Spotlight: Remembering the greatest show on earth

Published January 12. 2019 07:27AM

he trapeze acrobats flew through the air with the greatest of ease. One false move and they’d fall to their death.

Every kid loves a circus. Especially the comical clowns with their colorful, outrageous costumes and hilarious facial makeup. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was undoubtedly the most famous “greatest show on earth.” They, no doubt, traveled through every state in America, bringing their diversified acts to millions of families for umpteen years.

Cotton candy, the aroma of hot dogs, lemonade, bearded ladies, snake charmers, bareback riders standing atop horses, lion and tiger tamers who stepped inside cages, whip in hand, defying those wild beasts to perform their trained acts just like the elephants.

But the suspenseful trapeze artists were the highlights of the circus acts. They walked a thin-wire tightrope holding a long bar to balance their every step. It was not an easy task, and it required many years of perfected training.

Other acrobats swinging on swings, being caught in midair by their partners as they flew through space without a safety net below. One false move and it could cost them their life, as the audience sat spellbound.

Due to concerns over animal cruelty and many local governments passing “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” ordinances, Ringling Bros. ended its elephant acts in May 2016.

No more elephants performing their unusual feats of dexterity. Those huge, robust creatures were put out to pasture; now living in the tropical climate of Florida.

The great, versatile Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille filmed “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1952, winning best picture of the year. The 2½-hour circus epic starred Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton and James Stewart as a delightful clown with a mysterious past. The train wreck sequence was worth the price of admission alone.

Screwball antics by the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico and Harpo, offered comedy in the 1939 “At the Circus.” This wasn’t top-grade Marx Brothers, but some worthy scenes as they save a circus from bankruptcy. Groucho’s vocal cords sang out “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Bing Crosby hadn’t any sleep to lose over Groucho’s singing, since he would never become another Sinatra or Perry Como.

Another enjoyable circus movie was the 1956 “Trapeze” with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida. It was a moody love triangle with a European circus background. Daredevil aerial stuntwork by real-life ex-acrobat performer Lancaster, who was quite authentic and actually performed his own stuntwork. The aerial performances are mesmerizing to watch. Both Lancaster and Curtis vie for Lollobrigida’s affections, both in the air and on the ground.

Perhaps after viewing DeMille’s successful circus epic four years earlier, British director Carol Reed decided to film a less-spectacular circus movie. Recently viewing “Trapeze” on Turner Classic Movies, it has proved to be a very entertaining cinematic event.

Around Christmas 2017, a delightful circus treat was offered as Hugh Jackman performed as P.T. Barnum in a movie musical based on the life of this 19th century entertainment impresario, “The Greatest Showman.” This circus bio chronicles Barnum’s rags-to-riches tale as he becomes the world’s greatest showman.

After displaying his dramatic skills in several Wolverine action films, Jackman is totally without song and dance ability, but he hits a high level as he performs well in this stunning circus musical. The songs are composed by “La La Land’s” Oscar-winning team, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

In 2017, Ringling Bros. circus was touring the country for its final performances. No more laughable clowns, the animal acts, the trapeze artists, the many three-ring circus acts that thrilled circus lovers for more than a century.

The march of time has taken its toll.

The kids growing up today will never see a live circus like those of days gone by. They probably won’t care because of having their computers, iPads, cellphones, video games and electronic devices never known before to mankind.

Gone, gone, gone is the magic of the circus. Forever just a memory of our youth. Of those magical days when we laughed heartily at the silly antics of clowns performing their goofy acts.

Laugh, clown, laugh, the final curtain has fallen down on those rapturous memories of our childhood days. Whenever we hear the memorable song, “Send in the Clowns,” we will be reminded of how thrilling it used to be to know the circus was coming to our town.

I was lucky enough to be able to see all this from a behind the scenes view, and many of my photos were published and featured in a historical magazine about the circus. Thank you Ringling Brother Red Train for your hospitality and amazing life altering experiences.

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