Justice B. Hill
I can remember those moments from childhood when, no matter what else was happening in our household, my father loaded up the Buick and took me and my four siblings downtown in Cleveland to watch the circus.
For us in the 1960s, circus meant Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, the company that had entertained and amused two or three generations of families – black and white — since the late-1800s.
I sat in those wooden seats in the old Cleveland Arena, overloaded on pop, popcorn and cotton candy as the death-defying acrobats on the high-wires overhead caught my attention whenever I could take my eyes off the clowns. I loved clowns. Later, I laughed myself to sleep.
To me, I had indeed watched “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
But after 146 years, the curtain will fall on the greatest show in May. Ringling executives announced plans to close the circus and put the clowns on the unemployment line – victims of what had cost Americans iconic companies like Woolworth’s, Pan-Am and Polaroid: technology and changing habits.
The millennium has been hard years for circuses and carnivals. They are old-school forms of wholesome entertainment that have lost their allure for youth who now let their fingers do the walking across their iPads, smartphones and PlayStation IVs. In their minds, Ringling Brothers is a throwback to an era of black-and-white TV, the manual typewriter and Chuck Taylors.
“The competitor in many ways is time,” Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, told The Associated Press. “It’s a different model that we can’t see how it works in today’s world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price.”
It didn’t help Feld’s circus or its bottom line that animal rights groups had long criticized Ringling Brothers for its treatment of exotic animals like elephants, big cats and bike-riding bears.
Critics like the Humane Society of the United States and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) found no humor here. They scored a big win on one front in 2016: Ringling Brothers sidelined its elephants, a popular fixture of the show since the 1880s.
Yet it looked as if no one had found a way to save this anachronism, an institution at odds with contemporary habits and the shortened attention spans of boys and girls today. Absent a way to get parents (and grandparents) to interest their children in jugglers, lion tamers and ringmasters, circuses seemed destined to join the Tyrannosaurus Rex: gone but not forgotten.
I’m among those who can’t forget. I can’t forget because the circus is one of the few ties that still bind me to my late father. He enjoyed the circus as much as his five children did, just as he enjoyed taking my brother and I each Christmas season to watch the Harlem Globetrotters, another laugh-a-minute performance that faces similar fiscal hardships.
The circus, however, was what I remember more. Not because the Ringling Brothers circus was any more fun than the slapstick humor I got from the Globetrotters; it wasn’t. But the circus was a reminder of what was and what will never be again: a childhood that my father spiced with an occasional treat whenever the circus came to town.
Then and now, Ringling Brothers had to offer a black boy or black girl, a white boy or white girl more than what a solitary night at home with “Call of Duty,” with “Mindcraft” or on Facebook with an anonymous army of Internet friends ever did.
The elephants and clowns just weren’t enough for them.
Justice B. Hill, an Ohio State University alum, is a long-time sportswriter/sports editor who now teaches journalism in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Hill’s freelance work has appeared in SBNation, Ebony.com, MLB.com and BET.com.