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A Clown Says Farewell To The Circus


Is after nearly a century and a half, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus will give its last show this spring. Its parent company, Feld Entertainment, made the announcement over the weekend. NPR commentator Murray Horwitz started his career as a clown in that circus, and he's sad about the closing of his alma mater.

MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: It's hard for me to analyze my unhappiness. How much of it is anger at the death of a great American artistic institution, and how much of it's just the discomfort of an aging clown to whom the world is becoming less and less recognizable?

I gave three of the best years of my life to the Ringling show. Its owner said there's no single reason for the closing, and I know he's right. So many things have changed - transportation, home entertainment, attitudes toward animal performers and, what really hurts, attitudes toward clowns. Believe me. I was never scary.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. When was the last time you heard any form of mass entertainment advertise itself as wholesome? P.T. Barnum and James Bailey first produced a circus together 146 years ago, but the show's origins go back almost to the Civil War. It's hard for us to conceive of what a really big deal it was even 50 years ago when Big Bertha, as the Ringling show was known, came to

town. Suddenly plugged into your community for a couple of days or a couple of weeks was a representation of the whole world - people and animals of all kinds and from all over the world working together to bring you things you thought were impossible. And it was all genuine. It was right there before your very eyes.

What's changed most is that relationship between the performers and the audience. An army general told me one time that the only people he ever saw work harder than show folks are soldiers in combat. We worked our butts off on the Ringling show, and in return, the audience rewarded us with laughter, applause and a visible sense of awe. We guaranteed wonder, and we delivered - to see the look on a kid's face as he watched a trapeze act, to hear the laughs of thousands of people as you took a fall. Believe me. We didn't do it for the money, which was not a lot.

Of course there are wonderful performers today, but nowadays, there seems to be a different transaction between the audience and the artists we celebrate. It's more about being hip and part of an event than it is about being astonished. And now there'll be no more Greatest Show On Earth to astonish us.

Thank heaven there will still be some circuses in America - real ones, I mean, with exotic things, animals and clowns, acrobats and unicyclists, jugglers and aerialists, performers who open up our imaginations as only the circus can to let us know, particularly the children among us and the children still inside of us, that there are more things possible in this life than we ever dreamed.


MCEVERS: Murray Horwitz is a playwright, lyricist and host of The Big Broadcast on member station WAMU in Washington.