Sunday at the circus was our version of getting over the hump. There was a 1 p.m. matinee followed by an early evening performance, usually at 5.
Saturdays were the hardest – putting on the greasepaint by 10:30 a.m. and staying in it 12 hours before feeling the sweet relief of baby shampoo in a hot shower.
But before putting on the greasepaint, I’d usually arrive early at the arena and pull a few props to practice juggling in an empty ring. The practice was always good, but really it was an opportunity to be alone. Mornings alone in the arena allowed me to stretch – spirit and mind as well as body. It gave me a private moment to bid farewell to yet another arena.
Last Sunday, we bid a final farewell to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth. After 146 years of entertaining people in ways no other group of people can, the show closed forever.
Those of us who lived inside this beast for any amount of time are especially saddened. It was like the antique rocking chair in the attic. Always there.
For close to a century and a half, most of us lucky enough to have worked in the circus imbued it with a continuous flow of new blood and ideas. Roustabouts typically stuck around a season or two, then found a town to grow roots. Acrobats and animal trainers grew older, replaced by others with new acts. Clowns like me left too, destined to occasionally impress friends at costume parties. But the circus itself seemed timeless and permanent. Now, the show itself is over.
Millions of us, whether we had the Ringling experience for a day, a year, or decades have lost a piece of ourselves. The phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages” will be in our hearts forever.
Dr. Seuss wrote, “Don’t be sad that it’s over. Be happy that it happened.”
I ended my teens in Modesto with the splendid opportunity to go along for the ride, and my life is forever enriched because of it. After two years, I left Ringling in November, 1985. Yet, over the last three decades, from time to time, I’d allow my mind to wander back to my days and nights on the road with the circus.
Life is so much different now than it was during my two years. Animal rights protesters became more prominent from the 1990s on. Cirque du Soleil eventually became the gold standard of the circus genre, for those willing to drop a C-note or two.
But in the ’80s, when I joined, Ringling was still the circus.
Validation of that fact came by gazing out the small train window at the countless images of the circular globe with white block letters over it: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. It was on the bus that took us from the rail yard to the arena. Naturally, when we arrived, the numerous white loading vans and trunks were all emblazoned with it. I was in the right place at the right time.
Car 54 was the one filled with clowns. There’s not much privacy in a 3-by-6 roomette, but it was never dull.
Most evenings, after the show ended around 10:30, we would pick up everything and move to the next city. A new adventure after a short (or long) ride on the rails.
Monday was our day off. If my 8-inch Sony black-and-white portable TV could tune in, I’d watch “Call to Glory” with Craig T. Nelson. On Tuesday (after “As the World Turns”) we’d catch the bus from the train to the arena for trunks. That’s when the apprentice clowns were required to help unload trunks full of props.
I thought of those performers last Sunday morning. Of the white bus, the train, the trunks. I thought of those taking their last ride in the Ringling Brothers van, climbing aboard just after noon for the show in New York City.
All of those individuals knew, in spite of their sadness, that the final show must go on. One more show. A final day of Ringling magic. The last day the circus would come to town.
Today images saturate our minds through a screen. One can push the button on a phone or laptop and be bombarded with visuals. You could find Ringling there, too. The final show was streamed online. If you tuned in, you were greeted with stark a notice, with dramatic music: “LAST. SHOW. EVER.” More than 27,000 have viewed the 3-minute video of that final episode of The Greatest Show on Earth.
At 51, had I been there for the end, as an employee or spectator, it wouldn’t have been the same experience I had at 18. The world changed. The show changed. I changed.
Still, I thought back to when I was 12, the day my Uncle George took me to see Ringling for the first time. The seed was planted. The dream began. Six years later I got to go on the road myself, still barely more than a child.
And I wondered if, after the final show, in the car on the way home, parents tried to explain to their little boys and girls that they had just experienced a piece of history with camels, tigers, lions, flying acrobats and tumbling clowns. Maybe it will sink a decade or two from now.
Meanwhile, performers and prop men filled their containers and cleared the arena floor. Eventually, it became empty and quiet. Just like it was in those moments when I would “practice.” It will stay that way forever.
Modesto native Andrew Rose spent two years in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a clown and trapeze artist. He is now an educator and writer living in Sacramento and working on his memoir, “Where Does a Clown Go? Chasing a Circus Dream and Almost Catching It.” He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.