Sunday, May 21, 2017, the Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave it's last performance. Sad times. I mean, not for elephants or other circus animals who spent their lives on the road performing, with all the attendant abuses of that life. Don't get me wrong. But circuses were, for along time an important part of American history and a lynch pin of the American entertainment scene. When the circus came to town it was a big deal, an chance to see exotic things in a world with no Youtube or Snapchat.
Circuses go Way back. The first circuses in America were mostly clown and equestrienne acts. By the 1830s and 40s there were dozens of circuses traveling American roads, rails and rivers (by steamboat!). Some were tiny "mud shows" while others had big tops and sideshow tents. P.T. Barnum got his start as a ticket taker and when he got his own circus he'd been in the business for decades. In the 1870s he combined his show with the Bailey Circus in the 1870s. And while Barnum is now probably the most famous circus man in American, he wasn't always. For awhile, in the 1840s and 50s Dan Rice reigned supreme,along with the Spalding& Rogers Circus. In fact Spalding and Rice had a long standing feud that Americans followed like we do celebrity affairs these days.
Dan Rice got his start as an animal trainer. His first act was Lord Byron, the Learned Pig. At one time or another he also had trick mules, a trained Rino, an albino camel and an elephant. When he got Excelsior in the 1850s he vaulted to the big time. That's an Excelsior poster at the top of this post, featuring the horse's biggest and most famous trick. He'd do this pose/statue thing while men carried him around the ring. The snow white Kentucky stallion could also climb stairs, count, do math and carry trick riders. Eventually Rice replaced Excelsior with Lallah Rookh, a freakishly talented elephant (she could walk a tight rope!). Lallah appears in my second Kate Warne novel, but Excelsior is a recurring character, appearing in all four of the novels I've written to date. So's Mr. Rice. Go read his Wikipedia article--what a character!
You see, because we don't know much about Kate's life before the Pinkertons I got to invent for her a circus past. In my imaginary world she ran away from the circus when she was 15, after her parents were killed in a blow down (that's when a circus tent collapses--it's a much feared circus calamity). Yeas later Dan Rice gives Excelsior to her. Did this happen in real life? Nope. Absolutely not. Is it a good story? Sure. Who wouldn't want to inherit a retired, super famous circus horse?
The thing is, with the passing of the Ringling Bros. circus so too passes a piece of American history. The trick mules, the performing rhinos, the tight walking elephants might be better off without circuses, but what about all the circus people, who lived a life outside the boundaries of respectable conformity? Is the country a better place for losing those folk and their way of life? I don't think so. Because there's too darn many people doing what's expected, what everyone else does, watching life instead of living it. So, go out there this week and be weird. Live like you've got a circus horse in the back yard.