The Bell Tolls for Ringling

Ringling Bros. circus performer Gleice Gillet on the lead elephant

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

This past spring I bought two tickets to the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, scheduled for May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. The iconic three-ring circus, mother of all American circuses, was closing its doors after 146 years. At the time, my friend the circus historian Richard Flint was busy researching a book commissioned by Ringling Bros. to commemorate the history of the famed circus for its 150th anniversary in 2021. Ringling didn’t make it that far. 

“People call it the Greatest Show on Earth,” Richard told me, “but it literally was the greatest show on Earth.” A large, profitable circus, Ringling was able to deliver grandeur no other show could match. Not just horses, acrobats, and clowns. Not only numerous elephants, but lavish costumes, state-of-the-art lighting, three rings, five weeks of rehearsals, Broadway choreographers to help train a bevy of showgirls and clowns, original music composed annually for each season. As Richard’s friend said to him, “Ringling’s demise is something like the Catholic Church shutting down.”

I attended a three-ring circus once in my childhood. My uncle Walter took my brother and me to Ringling sometime in the early 1950s, and I can still remember walking through its legendary sideshow tent past giants and fat ladies, and seeing the elephants lined up as an attraction. That one unforgettable visit sparked my imagination. You need to see the circus only once to experience its magic—and you can’t experience it on your phone.

The circus serves as a powerful metaphor for the poetry of everyday life. It often harbors its own elevated language: circus impresario Milton Bartok, for example, pointed his audiences’ attention to the aerialists not at the “top of the big top” but to the “lofty recesses of the big top.” The circus has kindled the imaginations of countless writers, poets, and musicians. In his poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” William Butler Yeats wrote:

Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

In his song “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” Bruce Springsteen sings of a circus where “the flying Zambinis watch Margarita do her neck twist” and where the “circus boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire… / And the Ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain’t ever gonna stop / And the circus boss leans over, whispers in the little boy’s ear, ‘Hey son, you wanna try the big top?’”

Years ago, I used a circus metaphor to write about a crazy and wonderful girlfriend:

Rosemary, lioness of rare beauty
struts across her cage
scratching with her claws
rattling her cage!
Yet she pats with velvet paws
the keeper of the neurotic woman
who puts his head between her jaws.

Not just poets but all of us need the circus as a world apart, a world of daring, extravagance, and wonder.

The athletic youth circuses cropping up across the country are healthy and wonderful. But no one runs away to join a youth circus.

A few weeks after the final Ringling Bros. show closed, I attended the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which featured circus arts as part of its offerings. Among the performers were members a number of youth circuses and small circuses, along with a few veteran multi-generational performers, including Dolly Jacobs, who just two years earlier had won a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for her career as an aerialist with Ringling Bros. and other circuses. From June 29 to July 9, visitors to the festival could see aerial acts, jugglers, tightrope walkers, and trapeze artists, and attend panels on circus lingo and circus life. This magnificent array of circuses included the Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe, which features two dozen of China’s top acrobats; UniverSoul Circus, which is a unique celebration of urban pop culture; the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, based in New York City; and a number of youth circuses, including Sailor Circus Academy, from Sarasota, Florida. These were ten banner days for circuses in the nation’s capital.

The Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe performs in the open-air ring at the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photograph by Art Pittman. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution.

No animals—no lions, no tigers, no horses, no animals at all—were featured in the circus program. A sign at the festival read, “major compliance regulations and costs relating to sanitation, safety, and welfare (both human and animal) eliminated the presentation of exotic animals. Nonetheless, several sessions in the Circus Stories tent will discuss the role of animals in the circus.”

One of the circus participants said that if indeed animals had been allowed, protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would have lined the walkways to add controversy to the event, generate publicity, and put a damper on the occasion. The circus, they suggested, is a perfect target for PETA’s cause, because it guarantees publicity.

PETA and other animal-rights groups did picket Ringling Bros.’ performances for a number of years, holding up graphic signs purporting to depict the disputed mistreatment of elephants in the faces of children and families waiting to enter the big top. The Humane Society of the United States and other groups sued Ringling Bros. for its alleged mistreatment of elephants, but in 2014 their suit was thrown out when it was discovered that they had paid a low-level elephant groomer to bring the suit, claiming that the mistreatment hurt his personal relationship with the elephants. Despite losing the battle, the protesters and the PR nightmare they created ultimately forced Ringling Bros. to retire the circus elephants to a preserve in Florida. Without the legendary elephants, the circus seemed doomed to fail, and its demise came a year later. The Humane Society lost its legal battle against Ringling Bros. but won the war; children of all ages lost.

Elephants on parade

The Ringling Bros. elephants had been part of New York City folklore for generations. When the show was over in Madison Square Garden, the elephants paraded from the circus train through Lincoln Tunnel with pomp and circumstance, often paying the tolls with great fanfare. New Yorkers lined the streets in the middle of the night to watch the procession. These elephants hearkened back to the beginning of Western civilization, from ancient India to the early nineteenth-century circuses. Until recently, at the Blessing of the Animals at Saint John the Divine in New York, Episcopal priests sometimes paraded an elephant in, at least once led by Gunther Gebel-Williams, Ringling’s star animal trainer in the 1970s and 80s.

The animals, clowns, and aerialists that make up the circus free the human imagination to consider the glorious possibilities of how the body moves, how animals can be trained, how human beings can choose to live dangerously, and how human beings interact with the natural world. Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson recalls that as a child he thought the festooned horses he saw at the circus were actually unicorns. He told New York Times reporters Sarah Maslin Nir and Nate Schweber that the world was losing “a place of wonder.” The athletic youth circuses cropping up across the country are healthy and wonderful—they are a form of gymnastics in which young acrobats await the audience’s applause rather than the judges’ scores; they are a place for retired circus performers to teach; they support many thousands of underserved young people; they are a boon to physical fitness and youth camaraderie. But no one runs away to join a youth circus.

As one friend said to me, Ringling’s demise is something like the Catholic Church shutting down.

Cruelty to animals is a serious offense. No one questions that. I don’t believe there is any point in debating the impossible question of whether elephants are happier in their natural habitats in Africa and Asia (where they are frequently killed for their ivory tusks) or in the zoo or the circus. I’ll leave it to others to ask the elephants that question. But who is there to raise a whisper in honor of the collective creative genius that created the modern-day circus and the role it plays in sparking our imaginations? The circus in all its glory is one of humanity’s great imaginative constructs—like the opera or the sonnet. And the circus, I believe, needs to be experienced in its fullness, with animals and acrobats and clowns; those diverse attractions have defined the circus since Philip Astley, an English cavalry officer, brought the three together to create the first circus in his London amphitheater in 1770; without that combination of elements, it’s an opera without the music.

The artist Philomena Marano drew this picture of the circus after seeing it as a child.

My wife Amanda and I never did get to see the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We had a family emergency—so two seats were still available. Here’s hoping that two curious children, their eyes filled with wonder, snuck under the big top and found those seats for the last performance of the Greatest Show on Earth—and that children everywhere will always have the chance to see clowns, acrobats, tightrope walkers, tigers and elephants gallivanting under “the lofty recesses of the big top.”

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Steve Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness“Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.”

80140100767700lZeitlin’s blog continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. He is a folklorist, and wants to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to

Learn more about The Poetry of Everyday Life.

The Bell Tolls for Ringling