penpusher: (Ringling Logo)
The things that entertain us, as a collective audience, have changed drastically over time. I personally never attended a Minstrel Show, but I understand they were beloved by many in their day. Radio was a very popular element of people's lives, and I guess there are still some that listen to certain forms of radio broadcasts, but it's definitely not the crucial source it once was...

And even television has flattened and thinned and has been redefined to go to areas beyond the device itself, with websites producing programming, and our collective ability to watch programs on our computers and phones is more than proof of that.

But with all of these changes over time, there was one constant: The Circus. And by "The Circus," I mean THE Circus: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

A Legendary "Combined" show The Ringling Brothers originally had their own circus, P.T. Barnum, the ultimate impresario, had exhibits which he would display and tour and James A. Bailey teamed up with him. Together these three entities would help carry this particular form of entertainment that has been a staple in the American fabric for nearly a century and a half.

Before television, before filmed newsreels even, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus brought audiences into a world they never would have seen, otherwise. Animals from other continents right in front of your nose to watch perform... unique acts that would amaze, from aerialists that did multi somersaults, mid-air, to the big cat tamers that risked their lives in a cage with twenty tigers.

And then, there are the clowns, the heart of the show, there to bring a smile, a tear, and maybe even a thought about humanity as we go.

The term "Sensory Overload" could have been coined for this three ring monstrosity, that demanded you look everywhere at once to see everything going on! It was organized chaos and confounded and delighted millions throughout time.

So, we have heard the news:

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing in May.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall as of a couple of years ago, when New York's boutique show, The Big Apple Circus, shut down. A beloved part of the scene for decades with its single ring and intimate setting, even it couldn't withstand a difficult economy and an era where most people simply didn't care as much about the tradition of this kind of entertainment.

When I was a kid, the Ringling show would come to town and camped out at Madison Square Garden for an unbelievable thirteen weeks... practically every school in the tri-state area took a trip to see the show during the spring, getting the requisite box of popcorn, the cotton candy, and the tiny flashlight on a string that you would swing over your head during a show "blackout" as the Ringmaster would announce the next performers.

The Circus is a throwback to the past, an historic relic of the way things were. Most people had no way of seeing animals like zebras or elephants up close until the circus came through town back in the 1940s and 50s

And that is, of course, part of the problem. As people understood the elements of what it meant for animals to live and perform on a traveling show, there was a constant outcry over the conditions for them. No matter your feelings on this issue, the protests that occurred had an impact on the way the show functioned and how it progressed.

And even with improvements that helped to support the care and raising of these wonderful creatures, eventually the call for change meant not just an adjustment in what was appropriate, but a complete overhaul and eventual dismantling of that element of the circus.

Certainly with alternate, but similar forms of entertainment, with zoos and aquariums becoming more common across the country, and with theme parks starting to be available in every state, suddenly the interest in a show like this wasn't quite the same, either... and even the Feld family, who have been the producers of this show for decades, had also been creating other, similar entertainment, like ice shows, that perhaps had, in their way, cut into the profit of the tentpole itself.

Maybe you were a person who attended a Ringling performance every year, going when you were a kid, maybe taking your kids to see it when you had a family. Or maybe you didn't attend, but liked the concept of what a circus meant. There's a sort of mystical, magical element to a show, people working together, traveling the countryside, performing, bringing a smile, a laugh, a thrill, some positive elements to the lives of others before they move on to the next town - the addition of some excitement and color to an otherwise average existence. That's why the concept of "running away with the circus" held so much romance and charm... you could leave your life as it was and become a part of something that made life brighter, brassier, better.

The collective history of what was known as "The Greatest Show on Earth" had its share of tragedy. Jumbo the Elephant, The Hartford Circus Fire and more recently, some of our community were remembering the deadly Ringling Train Derailment of 1994 which was January 13th of that year, twenty-three years ago now.

There was also some positive inspirational elements too, as the film "The Greatest Show on Earth" won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1952. There was the Broadway show Barnum which won a Tony Award for Jim Dale. And now, almost as a final coda, we have a new film, titled "The Greatest Showman" with Hugh Jackman in the role of Phineas Taylor Barnum, due for a Christmas 2017 release.

Personally, Ringling changed my life forever. I might have remained in a stale retail sales job. Being a manager for a department store seemed to be my life's direction until I got the call to go to Clown College. Because of that, I got some wonderful skills which I still use frequently. I got some fascinating jobs over time which took me to some pretty interesting places. And most importantly of all, I got a wonderful collection of friends and I became a part of a family of sorts. There are less than two thousand people who completed Ringling's Clown College course over the nearly thirty year history of that institution, making this a very exclusive group. I'm both pleased and honored to be among those ranks.

Recently, clowns have gotten a worse than usual name because of the actions of a few. But despite bad publicity, various protests and other elements, circuses haven't gone away completely. There are still some out there touring, and even some in residence in particular locations, so we can't quite say the art form is dead, but this is a very big and very notable milestone that is imminent. This is the loss of a part of our collective family tree.

At the end of every performance, the ringmaster of the Ringling show would make a seven word statement to the crowd as they gathered their belongings, their family members, their souvenirs and their memories of what they just witnessed. It was a way of holding the concept of what the show was about to the hearts of those who attended. I can't think of any other way to conclude but by offering them again, now.

"May All Your Days Be Circus Days."
penpusher: (Pen)
"Detour-Spotting" continues to be the basis for this series of thinkposts Re: why we can't seem to make any progress on the issue of race in America. Jona Olsson's essay is lengthy, wide-ranging and deserves to be examined closely, so I'm going point by point through it to expand on the thoughts she is offering and to clarify the view just a bit.

Today's offering:

6) Lighten Up (lighten? whiten?)

“Black people are just are too sensitive and thin-skinned.” or “Indians should get a sense of humor. We’re just kidding around.” or “I didn’t mean anything racist, it’s just a joke.”


Reality Check and Consequence

Here are racism and agent deletion in partnership again. The problem and perpetrators are exonerated, because the rationale declares that humor isn’t hurtful. This form of denial serves most to trivialize the pain and reality of daily racism.


This is kind of in my wheelhouse as it relates to a topic I know pretty well: comedy.

As an attendee of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, I learned a few important maxims regarding humor, but one of the most important ones was:

If you had to say it was a joke, it wasn't funny.

And that applies everywhere, no matter the situation, or the people involved. A joke is supposed to make people laugh. If you need to say that your comment was a joke, it definitely didn't work.

Comedy and racism have a long history in this country, with most of it not very funny. There has been a litany of racist jokes, images, stereotypes, artistic renderings, songs, staged performances, cartoons, comics, films, radio and television programs, and, of course, the general public all making fun of minorities.

It would be one thing if that were it and it was just the fact that these things existed. But it really goes beyond that. Because people behave based on atmospheres. If it's perfectly fine to make fun of the shape of someone's eyes, the color of their skin, and other elements of who they are, then people will continually do that. And if that happens, there is no sensitivity. There is no empathy. There is no understanding. That's really the reason "Political Correctness" came along: to stem the tide of such commentary.

It's interesting that many people, most especially some high profile politicians, are now making comments about tossing away "political correctness." Really, isn't being "politically correct" is just another way of saying you're being polite? Really, jokes made at the expense of those less fortunate are never a positive. The phrase "don't kick someone when they're down" was created for such a situation. And that's why it's so puzzling to see a kind of resurgence in this sort of material.

Again, not to assume any of this is straightforward narrative, but when you don't understand the racist atmosphere we collectively live in, it's difficult to understand the actions of black people and why they are offended that there are no dolls that match varying skin tones for their kids to play with or why there was such an outcry over the forty Academy Awards acting nominations over the past two years being all white. This is more than just a joke.

But, of course, all of this is why we need to have an open discussion about racism in America and why we can no longer continue to ignore these issues. It's time to start talking about how these issues affects and impacts all of us, not just minority people, because that contributes to both how we see each other and how we see ourselves.


Previous thinkposts in this series:

1. Day One - I'm Colorblind
2. Day Two - Bootstrap Theory
3. Day Three - Reverse Racism
4. Day Four - Blame The Victim
5. Day Five - The White Knight
penpusher: (Ringling Logo)
You’ve seen them, at sporting events or in a parade, at a store opening or a theme park. Stilt walkers! They stand tall among the crowd and are definitely a festive part of any event.

At Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, stilt walking was part of the curriculum, as the Circus typically has a set of stilt walkers as part of the Opening and/or Closing Spec (short for “spectacle” – when all performers are greeting the crowds on the arena floor).

I'm not completely sure how... )
penpusher: (Ringling Logo)
I had been through an endless parade of schools: a pre-k, a different kindergarten, three different first grades (as my parents arranged their divorce), the same school from second to fourth, a year of terror, verbal and physical abuse in fifth, a settled three years for junior high, an all boys school in ninth grade before moving to the high school I would graduate from in tenth, and then on to college, the first time I ever spent four years at the same institution.

Always being the “New Kid” taught me an important lesson: using humor can get people to like you quickly, assuming you were actually funny and assuming they didn’t hate you on sight. By the time I was eleven, my role was defined: comedian. Unfortunately, humor didn’t make for lasting relationships of any kind, either friendships or romances. Or, perhaps it might have, had I stayed in any one place long enough.

Though most of the schools I attended were small... )
penpusher: (Ringling Logo)
In commemoration of World AIDS Day, I present this story, which I first posted in my Clown College community board.
Read more... )

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