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Last March when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus rolled through Baltimore, I went alone to the 1st Mariner Arena on a brisk Saturday and told the cashier I wanted a good seat.

Sixty-five dollars later I was sitting in the front row, ringside, wearing a circus celebrity pass. (I’d also been given a red, rubber clown nose that I refused to wear.) That’s when the two Mexican midgets beckoned me to join them in the center ring. Apparently my absurdly expensive seat entitled me to be in the circus!

With the noise, flashing lights and over-amplified music, the scene was hallucinatory, like a Fellini film. I started perspiring. Thankfully, my Spanish was adequate to the task at hand. I told the Mexican midgets I had a heart condition and was very ill. When they moved on down the line of circus-goers eager to join the show, I bolted for the cheap seats.

When I was growing up in the long ago, once a year a three-ring circus came to the small mill town in Maine where I lived and pitched its great tents in a pasture. This was the old Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus— its modern-day descendant still claims to be the last circus under canvas. There were lions and tigers and elephants, and old Clyde Beatty worked the center ring, taming the big cats. There was even a freak show complete with a fat lady, a bearded lady and a rail-thin geek who swallowed stuff, as well as an assortment of scientific curiosities obtained from a defunct medical school. (The educational portion of the show.) Those were simpler times, my friends.

Half a century later, there is no more reliable harbinger of spring every March than Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s arrival. The Sun runs a photograph of the elephants plodding along in a line, trunk to tail, their heads draped with a medallion that reminds us they are part of “The Greatest Show On Earth.”  The pachyderms plod over to the Lexington Market to eat some roughage before settling into the arena. It makes good TV.

The circus is an ancient entertainment—the Greeks and Romans invented it— and they gave us the word circus. But today the circus is seedy, expensive and depressing. “The Greatest Show On Earth” is, alas, nothing of the kind. I’m no vegan but there is something disturbing about seeing six big white tigers— animals that range over vast terrain— inside a cage. And, in truth, the tricks they perform— jumping over a sawhorse, for example— are not so amazing. Hell, Clyde Beatty would have had those cats touch-typing or tap dancing. Yes, I am aware the future for tigers and elephants in the wild is bleak. But given the mood of the times, the future of wild animals in show business is, too.

I must confess that I delight in accounts of the old elephant who, after years of trudging along in some fleabag show, decides one afternoon to stomp the bejaysus out of its hillbilly handler for poking it with a tire iron. Or the ancient lion that has had enough and one day shows its trainer just who really is “the king of the beasts.” I understand why circus animals attack. My sympathies are with them.

I’d long thought that the circus had outlived its purpose and that it would soon be no more. But after attending it last March, I realize I was wrong. The circus must simply reinvent itself. Abandon the mangy lion and forsake the plodding elephant. Make man the spectacle. I’m not talking about Cirque du Soleil, which features trained acrobats and aerialists. I’m talking about putting Boobus Americanus and Homo Erectus West Virginius in the center ring.

At the circus I saw, a professional strong man caught a cannonball said to be traveling at 75 mph. He has done this a thousand times— he is a professional performer. But we live in an age when thousands of Americans would volunteer to do this without a moment’s hesitation (or training). Now, that’s entertainment!

Perhaps Ringling Bros. has anticipated this inevitable change. The circus I saw had a few animal acts— there was a poodle riding a small motorcycle— but there were a lot of acts involving man doing silly things. My favorite was a troupe of small Chinese men who took their hats off very fast. OK, so that’s not ready for prime time, yet. But man is plainly moving toward the center ring.

There are said to be a mere 30,000 tigers left in the world. But there are millions of knuckle-draggers and the first members of their families to wear shoes in the red states who would die (and some may actually do that) for a chance to be in show business. Thousands will yowl if you torment an old elephant (as well they should). But trust me, there will be no protesters from PETA if man is in the center ring. Let him jump through flaming hoops. Let him stand on his hands. Let him vault over a few sawhorses.

The bearded lady, midget and giant are hard-pressed to turn a buck today. In their place, we have reality television, a daily freak show that the wily P.T. Barnum could have never imagined. No one cares if the contestants for reality TV make fools of themselves— or worse. Man always gets exactly what he deserves. So let him have it. 

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