Greatest Show on Earth closes after 146 years
As I watched the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus take its final bow last Sunday night, I was overcome by emotions of sadness and regret. Part of those feelings mourned the loss of America’s last trace of innocent wonder, and an icon that is older than Major League Baseball. The demise of the circus also permanently shattered my secret back-up retirement plan of being ringmaster of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
I have always been a fan of the circus, especially the aerial acts, and even got to be guest ringmaster (Jerome Christenson got to ride the elephant) for the three-ring Carson and Barnes tent circus when it came to Goodview back in my radio vacation days. However, when my wife Maureen treated me to a performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I felt like a kid during the best Christmas morning ever. As far as I was concerned, the only circus I ever needed to see again was the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
There’s been a lot of speculation about why Ringling Brothers had to close. After animal rights activists hounded the elephant acts out of the show, already dwindling ticket sales plummeted, making financing the 500-person crew, 100 animals, and mile-long trains unsustainable. iPhones, video games, and social media, have also been blamed for our children’s apparent lack of interest in trapeze acts, wondrously healthy performing exotic animals, and of course … the “Globe of Death.”
I think it’s a lot simpler than that. Families don’t eat together around the dinner table anymore. Church attendance is dropping across America. Somehow, we have lost touch of many of the positive things that brought us together as family. Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus was the most family-friendly venue on the planet, and now it has folded its tents forever.
Back in 2004, the Mareks traveled to La Crosse to see the “Greatest Show on Earth.” What happened during that amazingly entertaining performance, and the tragedy that occurred only days later, forever bonded our family with the close-knit circus family that is at the core of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus. Here’s the column that appeared on May 26, 2004, in the Winona Post.
The last time I saw Dessi Espaa, she was calmly standing inside an iron contraption called the “Globe of Death” during the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus a few weeks ago in La Crosse. Two daredevil motorcyclists were racing around her at breakneck speed. It was the climax of the show, and seemed incredibly dangerous, but she never flinched, and her smile never wavered.
This version of “The Greatest Show on Earth” was billed as the “Hometown Edition,” and featured only one ring instead of the usual three-ring presentation. It gave the audience a much closer view of the acts than a traditional circus performance. Before the show began, we were given the opportunity to go down on the floor and backstage to meet the performers. Everyone was very friendly, but Dessi stood out from the rest. She greeted children inside the “Globe of Death” and posed for pictures. As she chatted with my daughter Moira, I was struck by her beauty and grace, and was exceptionally impressed how she was able to genuinely connect with a nine-year-old girl. When she was finished, Moira was ready to run away with the circus.
“Probably my easiest job is also the most dangerous,” Dessi was quoted in a news release. “All I have to do during the Globe of Death is to stand in the middle and smile, but all around me, my husband and his brothers are speeding around on motorcycles in every direction, in a very small space, at very high speeds. It’s all about trust. I know how professional they are and that I am safe.”
Halfway through the show Dessi performed her specialty — an aerial ballet in which she climbs and is suspended in the air by only two pieces of chiffon, hanging from a 30-foot frame. There were other acts in the show that were more dramatic, but nothing could top the aerial ballet for beauty or danger. Because of the twisting, spinning, and dramatic drops, it is the only aerial act in the circus that is performed without a net or harness.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus has been traveling the country and delivering death-defying thrills and chills to ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages for over 135 years. Many of the people who flocked to the tents and later the auditoriums over the years were drawn to the aerialists who cheated death and performed mind-boggling acrobatics without a net. With no margin for error, many of these performers lives ended on the sawdust floor of the circus tent. In a modern-day circus that has been largely sanitized to accommodate young families and OSHA requirements, Dessi’s aerial ballet hearkens back to a tradition of aerialists who literally gave their lives to their craft.
On Saturday afternoon in St. Paul, Dessi Espaa, a second-generation performer with Ringling Brothers, came down to earth for the last time. She was twirling near the roof of the Excel Center when witnesses say that it appeared that a coupling on the apparatus gave way. She fell over 30 feet to the concrete floor. It was the circus’ first fatality in 10 years.
The phrase “The show must go on” is attributed to Broadway, but it was born in the circus. While the show is exceptionally family-friendly, the circus is also a family itself. Dessi married her husband, Ivan, also an aerial performer, during a performance. Both of their children are training to become aerialists. Imagine the pain and the shock in the tight-knit circus community as they lost a woman who was known for her “high-sky heroics and generosity.” Then imagine how it felt to finish the show.
In the time-honored, circus-tragedy tradition, they sent in the clowns.
The quality of the Ringling Brothers’ clowns have always been head and shoulders above other circuses, and on this afternoon they were called on to do their best work, and distract the crowd. The show did go on, and they performed the next day, too, although without the aerial ballet.
At the end of every Ringling Brothers Circus, the ringmaster tells us to live every day as a circus day. If that means seeking adventure in the ordinary, making every moment count, treasuring family, and pursuing excellence, I would count that as good advice.