The circus is in town, and to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of P.T. Barnum, a star was unveiled (by an elephant, but of course) at Staples Center’s Star Plaza, honoring “the Great American Showman.” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s 130 clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, stilts and tightrope walkers, weightlifters, contortionists, plus pachyderms, tigers and other animals are performing in the Southland through Aug. 8.
I remember during small kid days the arrival of Ringling Bros.’ in New York, and the elephant march up one of Manhattan’s avenues – an irresistible photo op if ever there was one – to Madison Square Garden, where I’d join thousands of other “children of all ages” to watch the thrilling spectacle. But times have changed since then, and along with heightened awareness about minority, women’s and gay rights, there is an increasing consciousness about the rights of our furry, feathered and tusked friends. Thus on July 15, two youths outside Downtown L.A.’s Staples Center were handing out eyebrow raising Animal Defenders International leaflets condemning beasts’ performing under the proverbial big top. I had also seen animal rights activists protesting outside of Switzerland’s Knie Circus at Lake Zurich in May.
But the child inside of me still wanted to see the much ballyhooed “Greatest Show on Earth,” and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey remains, well, a circus. The darkness was punctuated by swirling multi-hued colored lights twirled by audience members, who were mostly kids filling about 70% of Staples Center’s seats during the noon performance I attended (opening night was reportedly sold out). Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson wore a spangly top hat and tails, as a pachyderm bearing a woman in a red, white and blue sparkly outfit waving Old Glory led the opening parade of human and animal performers. The ensuing “Barnum’s FUNundrum” was full of bangles, Bengals, hoopla, hokum and smokum (literally – there are smoke effects), all accompanied by a live orchestra.
Acrobats amazed and delighted onlookers with their death defying dexterity, leaping (literally) through hoops, atop bamboo poles, seesaws, etc. A net dropped and trainer Daniel Raffo, reportedly a fifth-generation circus performer, handled nine tigers, using a long stick with a sort of whip at the end to guide the Bengals and others to do feline tricks, such as walking on their hind legs (and you thought herding cats was hard!). A so-called “sideshow” with an obviously faux bearded lady, Siamese twins, wild man of Borneo (which, by the way, is not a Pacific Island, as the show states, but is part of Asia), etc., spoofed the old carnival freaks cliché (other sideshows later spoofed superheroes and paid homage to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show).
Russian tightrope walkers called the Sky-High Ice Gliders did their derring-do about 25 feet above the ground. Although they had no net, the agile performers were attached to lines – just in case… In a day at the 21st century circus, seven motorcyclists roared around an enclosed sphere in day-glo bikes, defying gravity – talk about L.A. rush hour traffic! (This was my companion’s – Kenyan rapper Gleam Joel – favorite act.)
A hokey hoe-down took place after intermission in, literally, a three ring circus, featuring lamas, ponies, elephants (one was led by a diminutive dog). For me, the highlight of the entire show was the Flying Carceras, who extend their rigging on high an extra four feet in order to attempt the quadruple somersault, which, according to the circus, is “the most difficult trick in trapeze arts.” For the record, at the show I saw the catcher did not succeed in grasping the flyer as he tried to perform the quad, but a net saved the plummeting trapeze artist from breaking his nimble neck.
(In Carol Reed’s 1956 Trapeze, Burt Lancaster bounces off of a net and is crippled. The trick Lancaster and his co-stars, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida, seek to execute is a mere “triple.” As the characters are involved in an offstage ménage a trois, the “triple” symbolizes their threesome. This leads me to remark on the sensual component of circuses, with fit, muscular performers, including bone-bending contortionists, romping about, spreading their legs, and so on, in leotards and other cheeky tight fitting outfits. Often the men are bare-chested and shapely women display bare midriffs in leggy costumes. It’s enough to inspire the adults of all ages.)
An Egyptian-themed number indicates there is an internationalist, exotic aspect to circuses, which often recruit talent from around the world. The Ulaanbataar Ballerina, who perform a jaw-dropping hand balancing and strap act, hail from Mongolia, as do Meetal and the Balancing Body Benders, a strongman and contortion act. Many other Asians, such as the Barnum Bouncers (a troupe of trampoline bouncing acrobats clad in outlandish purple costumes from Puyang, China), as well as African Americans (including the ringmaster and many dancers) are part of the Ringling Bros. action.
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All in all, I confess that this child of a certain age found Barnum’s FUNundrum to be good -- if sometimes corny -- fun. But the use of animals does present a conundrum, as circuses no longer fly through the air with the greatest of ease in our more sensitive times. Just outside the circus in the sweltering heat, in between her leafleting passersby who expressed middling interest, I interviewed Michelle Blanchard, outreach coordinator for the L.A. office of the London-based Animal Defenders International, who allege that circuses, including Ringling Bros., abuse animals. Blanchard, a longtime vegan, asserted that this is how circuses get animals to perform. “They don’t do tricks in the wild. It’s not natural.
In a press release, Ringling Bros. contends that it “has never been found in violation of the Animal Welfare Act” and that the circus is regulated by USDA and “meets and often exceeds federal regulations [and] USDA standards…” In an “Elephant Care Fact Sheet” Ringling Bros. maintains that it takes care of the health, diet and cleanliness needs of pachyderms, as well as the housing and transport requirements of all of the circus’ animals. Ringling Bros. states that it spends $6 million annually on animal care, including $60,000 per elephant, and that it established a Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.
ADI calls for removing animals from circuses and making them human-only shows. Its leaflet claims that the conditions for and treatment of animals in captivity forces them to “go out of their minds,” and warns ticket buyers that they may be in peril of being attacked by “dangerous animals.” (I was in Honolulu when a “rogue” elephant named Tyke went on a deadly rampage in the 1990s at a circus that was not a Ringling Bros. show.)
According to Ringling Bros., under its current ownership, it “has never experienced an animal-related incident that placed a member of the general public at risk.” Last December a long-standing lawsuit brought by the ASPCA and other animal advocates that sought to forbid elephants from appearing in Ringling Bros. circuses was reportedly dismissed by a federal court. The circus contends that what it calls “animal special interest groups” has an “aggressive and extreme agenda…” At the end of the Barnum FUNundrum, a baby pachyderm promenades about the stage and is introduced as the next generation and future of the so-called “Greatest Show on Earth,” signaling Ringling Bros. intention to continue including elephants and other animals in its acts in the years to come.
I am not an expert on the issue of animal participation in circuses, nor have I investigated the matter thoroughly. However, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that this may be a real life conundrum that not even a Mongolian contortionist could wriggle out of.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus takes place at Staples Center until July 18; at Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena July 21--25; and at Anaheim’s Honda Center July 28—Aug. 8.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”