Last month, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus gave its swan song performance. Who would have bet that it all might have begun with an elephant in Stephentown (later to become Somers), N.Y., known as Old Bet? Certainly not Old Bet, walking along carrying a full trunk, quietly thinking, “Dude, I’m not that old.”
Her owner, Hachaliah Bailey, was a farmer who heard about the elephant while he was at a bar. Perhaps you heard of it, too: two elephants walk into a bar, with a priest, a rabbi and a parrot. I haven’t got time to explain it all, but take my word for it, the parrot has the best line of the story. Anyway, Hachaliah bought the elephant for $1,000, so the story goes, not the one with the parrot, thinking that it would do twice the work of an ox on his farm. As it turned out, the elephant became such a sensation that he ended up exhibiting the animal for money, and purchased other exotic beasts, possibly monkeys and bears, to add to his collection.
Together they formed a touring “menagerie,” and these menageries became very popular in the 1800s. They were the precursor to the modern circus, and Somers became thought of as the “Cradle of the American Circus.” It would have been nice to be called the “Birthplace of the American Circus,” but another city took that name first. They also took “Jungle Gym of the American Circus” and “Diaper Bag of the American Circus.”
Although Barnum and Bailey circus impresario James Bailey wasn’t related to Hachaliah, his name was. James was an orphan who was given a job by Hachaliah’s nephew, and eventually took his name, probably when he wasn’t looking. The circus grew into an American institution, with many facets and incarnations. But the public’s fascination with elephants never wavered.
When the time came that tastes changed and people became concerned for the welfare of circus animals, revenue dropped. The circus’ days were numbered, and now that number is up, after 146 years.
Imagine the types of skills that are now available to be re-assimilated into the work force. What jeweler wouldn’t want a ringmaster in his shop? Sure, he already has guys who know about rings, but have they MASTERED them? What about hiring a contortionist for your business? You can stick him inside a box, and he’ll let you know if you are thinking outside of it. If you’re running a local fire department, get yourself a fire eater and don’t feed him for a couple of days. A fourth grade teacher in the New York City public school system with experience as a lion tamer could prove invaluable.
And then there are the clowns. I was a class clown for many years, but never pursued it as a profession. Many people did, and now clowning is not a career path anymore. Specifically WHERE will these people clown, or will they just clown around? Will there be an overabundance of circus performers at children’s parties, or will they simply run for Congress?
Closing the circus is also a game changer for people running away from home. To have no circus to run away to is the worst news for any kid who doesn’t live in a mobile home. If you run away from a mobile home, a potential embarrassment awaits you if you find it parked next to you 20 minutes later.
I once ran away from home, although I didn’t actually run, I sort of moseyed away from home. I packed up my belongings in case my parents wanted to rent out my room the next day. I did it to take a stand—my father wanted to cut my hair. You may think that a haircut is not much of a reason to leave home, but you haven’t seen my father’s haircuts.
So let’s raise a glass to the sword swallowers, the jugglers the trapezers, the knife throwers, and the original fat lady, Old Bet. The fat lady has sung. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go work out with my trainer. She’s teaching me to balance a ball on my nose.
Say hello to Rick Melén at email@example.com.