Monday, January 16, 2017

The Word Is CIRCUS

This series is inspired by the "Words From
Unity" public service announcements
that ran on television (particularly in
Kansas City) in the 1970's and 80's.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled series of word-based philosophical essays and memoirs to focus on another word which won't quite have the same meaning again. As this post goes up, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced their tents are coming down for good in May. Changing times, changing attitudes toward animal acts, and changing entertainment options all led up to this day. I also think the rise of Cirque du Soleil was the beginning of the end. However, the biggest factor in RBBBC's demise is this: the act had grown routine, perhaps stale.

As the AP's Tamara Lush points out, "When the circus came to town, kids dreamed of running away to join it and its ever-changing roster of stars: the sad-faced clown, Emmitt Kelly; the daredevil trapeze act, the Flying Wallendas; Gunther Gabel-Williams, blond-maned and fearless in the ring with the big cats." But other diversions caught up with the wonderment of the big top. Joining the circus didn't seem like such an escape anymore, especially after the Internet got into the house.

Many people are going to blame RBBBC's death on their decision to eliminate the elephant acts, after which ticket sales tanked. But its parent company, Feld Entertainment, did the math: it could not continue to pay lawyers to fight animal-rights activists, and it couldn't make money if cities were going to limit their options by taking a hard line on treatment of the wild kingdom.

Giovanni Zoppe, owner of the small Zoppe Family Circus, put it bluntly to KOLD News 13's Maria Hechanova:
"I think these animal rights groups are awful. I’m sorry if I offended anyone, I’m sorry. They’re a big percentage of why circus is dead. We can’t fight them ... It makes me very angry. Who are they to say what’s right or wrong. We’re around these animals 24 hours a day."
I say the elephant in the room wasn't elephants. Ringling Bros. would still be around if it had made the bold step of pulling in the feel of of some of its competitors: it should've de-emphasized animal acts years ago while increasing theatrics similar to Cirque du Soleil. Perhaps RBBBC could've pilfered a few Cirque producers to help reimagine the Greatest Show on Earth for new audiences. Instead, it just tweaked the basic show, thinking that its status as an American and cultural institution was strong enough.

It should've seen what was happening in the rinks. Ice Capades, Ice Follies, and Holiday on Ice all went dark when they couldn't evolve. Disney on Ice is surviving because it re-invents itself with new characters and new elements every year. Having a multi-billion dollar company and iconic characters doesn't hurt either. Sesame Street Live continues to play because it performs a different-themed show with new material every time it comes to town.

Now the Greatest Show on Earth will fade into history after May. Family-run circuses like the Zoppe's will live on with smaller, more intimate shows and few if any animals. It won't be the same. That's exactly why they will continue to play and Ringling Bros. will not.

No comments: