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Guest column: Peninsula artist remembers good times at the circus

Elephants pass during the circus walk along W. Olney Road in Norfolk, 1989.

As a Baby Boomer, the circus was one of my standard-bearers. We celebrated the 4th of July, the first moonwalk, and Ringling Bros. Circus.

But “The Greatest Show on Earth” is no more. Just as Ringling presents its first female ringmaster, her career becomes a footnote.

Circuses have always possessed a lure and mystique. To “run away to the circus” was the ultimate bohemian wish.

In the best-selling novel “Water for Elephants,” by Sara Gruen, an abused elephant, along with star-crossed lovers, became the catalyst for a singular circus catastrophe, and the death of its psychotic trainer.

Saturday, March 18

1: 30, 4:30, 7:30 p.m. Garden Bros. Circus
Ted Constant Convocation Center, 4320 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk

Thursday, March 23-Sunday, March 26

Ringling Bros. Circus
Tickets start at $15
Scope Arena, 201 E. Brambleton Ave., Norfolk

From Disney’s Dumbo, to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and even Big Top Pee-wee, circuses have acted as vehicles to play out our fascinations, loves and disgust. They are multifaceted and raw. For all of their animalistic trappings, they are human.

When I first read the Ringling headline, I immediately blamed PETA for the demise. Despite their well-intentioned acts, this was their greatest show on earth: putting talented humans out of work. And they couldn’t care less about whether this was the only chance for children to gape in fascination as lines of huge, magnificent animals are led into a ring not 50 feet away, to experience the body heat and the smells, and to appreciate that this tiger, that lion was staring at them.

But PETA is only one factor. Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, says that the end of an era is not the result of any one group or circumstance.

“Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” he said.

The circus: entertaining, cacophonous—a metaphor for us as humans. No app can replace it. No zoo will offer it justice. The elephants have already been removed to P.T. Barnum Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, where they will roam and work for cancer research. No more bullhooks.

I will be taking every young friend I have to the circus in Hampton this March. It will be their last chance. 146 years of hubbub—the mingled odors of popcorn, musk and urine. The trumpeting music, the glittery costumes, the high wire acts, all there in three rings. I will never regret experiencing The Greatest Show on Earth.

Terry Cox-Joseph is an artist, author and editor who freelances from her home in Newport News.

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