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End of an era

There will be those, The Legal Genealogist is sure, who welcome with whole hearts the end of this particular era.

Who greeted the news with relief and with joy.

The circus will no longer come to town.

This past week, the announcement came in a press release:

Ellenton, Fla. – January 14, 2017 – Feld Entertainment Inc., parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® and the world’s largest producer of live family entertainment, announced today that the iconic 146-year-old circus would hold its final performances later this year. Ringling Bros.®’ two circus units will conclude their tours with their final shows at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., on May 7, and at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21, 2017.

And, yes, I really do understand all of the issues involved in making animals perform in circuses and other public arenas. The training, the confinement — it certainly fits within the definition of inhumane.

But spare just a moment for the cherished memories of childhood.

Because there wasn’t anything in my young life that was quite as exciting as when the circus came to town.

circusGrowing up in suburban central New Jersey as I did, there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for excitement.

No farms within walking distance with their machinery and animals. No city streets with their bright lights and hawkers. And the most exotic creature we ever saw around, unless you count the possums, was an occasional Siamese cat.

Oh, there were a few things. Putting pennies on the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and waiting just a few delicious steps away until the train had passed before retrieving the flattened circle of copper. The thrill of playing hooky from elementary school (we always always always got caught).

Beyond those, really, there wasn’t much that was exciting in that suburban New Jersey life.

Except for once a year, for the few years when we children didn’t so greatly outnumber our parents.

Once a year, when the circus came to town.

The adventure began with a train ride from our central New Jersey home into New York City. That by itself was a treat. The swaying of the cars and the clickety-clack on the rails. The seats that could be turned to ride backwards or forwards. Hearing the conductors walk through the cars and pronounce the names of the towns in ways we’d never heard before — and I never have since. “Rawwwwwwwwww – way.” “EEEEEEE – eeeee – liz- BETH.” And finally in a chanted cadence: “Penn – syl – van – ia Sta – tion New YORK.”

The circus in those days was in what’s known today as Madison Square Garden III, an indoor arena located on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th street. And that meant a second adventure before we ever got to the circus: a subway ride. Again the swaying cars and the clickety-clack, but this time underground. In the dark, even.

And then there was the circus.

Oh, the circus.

With its great big clowns riding little bitty cars. Its acrobats tumbling and twirling. Its high wire walkers and flying trapeze artists.

And the animals.

Animals the likes of which we had never seen.




(We were and are cat fans…)

We never had the best seats in the house. By the time we first went to the circus there would have at least four tickets needed — two adults and two kids — plus transportation plus babysitting in the very early years when my younger brother and sister were too young to come along. Soon enough, first my younger brother and then my younger sister joined the annual outing.

And of course we begged for every treat the circus hawkers tried to hawk. The cries of “Peanuts!” and “Popcorn!” filled our ears… the scents filled our noses.

I don’t remember our parents giving in all that effort to our pleas for the food treats.

But there was one thing we begged for the hardest and sometimes even managed to cajole our parents into buying.

They were small, rectangular, colored flashlights, on a short beaded chain.

And at some point, I remember, the lights dimmed, the command was given … and all around the indoor arena the tiny lights began to shine… and not only twine but twirl … as every child lucky enough to own one of those flashlights joined in twirling it around a finger by its chain.

Everywhere you looked, around nearly 20,000 seats, there was a sea of twirling fairy lights.

It was magical.

By the time the 1960s arrived and my youngest brothers came along, well, with that many kids, the trips to the circus came to an end.

But here I sit, 50 years later, and I can still remember the sights, the smells, the excitement.

Yes, it’s a good day for animal rights.

But it’s a bittersweet day for memories.

Memories of a time of excitement and of magic.

Memories a younger crowd will never know.

Memories of when the circus came to town.


Image: Cover art, Circus Procession (New York : McLoughlin Bros., 1888); digital image, Library of Congress ( : accessed 21 Jan 2017).]

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