The circus is closing. THE circus. The big one. The biggest one there ever was.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
For a brief period in my 20s — about a year and a half — I was a promoter for Feld Entertainment, the company that owns Ringling, Disney on Ice, and several other entertainment properties. Me and my fellow promoters were the people responsible for making sure you knew the show was coming to town and that your life would be significantly less happy if you didn’t buy a ticket and go see it. We used to say that it was our job to put butts in the seats.
But that’s not all we did. When the shows came to our territories, we were holed up backstage with them, doing a very weird mix of things like monitoring the box office, making sure the all the fire permits were in place, making sure television crews showed up and knew where to go, and a hundred other weird, unexpected tasks that might arise when a traveling show decamps for several days.
I landed the best assignment a promoter could ever hope for. After two months of training at Feld’s corporate headquarters, I got sent to New York mother-effing City for a six-month apprenticeship. In typical Feld style, I had to figure a lot out on my own. I was told “Trish, you’re going to New York for six months. Find an apartment. You leave in two weeks.”
I called the one person I knew in the city and she somehow magically knew someone who needed a roommate. I ended moving into a loft apartment in the East Village with three strangers. For the first few months, my “room” in that open loft was a futon mattress on the floor in the corner across from kitchen. Every morning I’d crawl off my mattress, put on my lady business suit, and go off to tackle whatever was on that day’s agenda for someone learning how to be a badass promoter.
Two days after I arrived, I was flashing my staff pass to go in the backstage entrance of Madison Square Garden to work on the Disney on Ice Hercules show. It was hard not to feel giddy about that.
Then, the next few months fell into a rhythm of working in the Feld mid-town office for a few weeks and then camping out in whatever NYC-area the various ice shows were in. It was as fun as it sounds.
But I hadn’t seen anything yet. Because I had yet to work the circus.
Spring is circus season in New York. The show comes to the greater New York Area and it stays for many, many weeks. First the Meadowlands arena in northern Jersey, then Nassua Coliseum (where the last show ever will take place today), and then the Big Momma: weeks in residence at Madison Square Garden.
Back in 1998, I, along with the rest of the New York office, was basically absorbed into the Blue Unit of the circus for nearly two months. We had offices backstage wherever they were. We shuttled performers all over the city for press events. We handled celebrities who showed up to see the show. (My fave: Bruce Springsteen slipping out the backstage door after the show carrying BOTH of his sleeping children, who were both definitely out of the toddler years. What a guy.)
Walking past a herd of 13 elephants to get to my office became, oddly, normal. I got to feed a tiger, which was easily the most terrifying experience of my life. I got to stay overnight in the circus train. I once had to take a clown, who was in full makeup, to the hospital after a gag went wrong and he got hit in the head with a board. I still giggle thinking about this clown sitting across from the triage nurse during the hospital intake. The nurse asked all the regular questions. Then she asked “occupation?” This guy, whose whole schtick was his deadpan delivery, looked her in the eye quizzically and waited a beat before replying “uhhh, clown?”
I’ve tried to write about the circus so many times, but I often end up getting bowled over by a visceral speedball of memories. It was a fully sensory experience. The sights, the sounds, the smells.
Later today, I’m going to see the last show ever. The sights and sounds will be familiar, but it won’t smell like the circus. The elephants were retired last year.
I’m weirdly emotional about the show ending. It feels like going to the funeral of an old friend. While my time with the show wasn’t incredibly long, it was incredibly intense. It was formative. It changed me. It changes everyone who spends any time around it.
I drank the circus in like it was a magic potion. I loved talking to people backstage. I loved collecting their stories.
The circus was billed as family entertainment, and it certainly was. But the dramas and the seediness that go along with circus life were there, even though Ringling’s image had been scrubbed squeaky clean. Backstage, there was always more going on than there was in the three rings. Romances, dramas, scores to settle, injuries … and gossip about all of it. “All this American food is making the Bulgarian girls fat … and whose job is it to get them on some birth control?”
By the time the show hit Manhattan, it felt like Ringling ruled New York. Everyone opened their doors to us. Every night after the show, we’d start with drinks at the bar across the street from the Garden and then end up who knows where. During that time, I was waking up to the sun pouring into my room (we built walls!), thinking “I cannot believe this is my life.”
After my time in New York, I caught up with both units of the show in various cities around the country. No matter where we were, it was clear that Ringling was baked into Americana. Gawd, that sounds cheesy. But it’s also true.
I have so many random memories. Oliver Gebel lovingly hosing down the big cats outside the area in Little Rock. His father, the (now departed) legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel Williams, standing just outside the spotlight while his son did his act. During the performance, Gunther would reach in to pet the tiger nearest him, and the cat would lean into his touch with obvious affection. The audience had no idea they were watching two legends at the same time.
I nearly got run over by a hippo in Shreveport. Zusha was on her way out to the floor to do her act, I was walking backstage, and she nearly took me out — because there was no way she was going to divert her course for anyone.
At that same engagement, the a/c went out in the arena. It was July. The trapeze act was dismal because everyone’s hands were so sweaty they couldn’t make a catch.
I could go on and on and on. And so could anyone who has spent any time around the show. Later today, I’ll sit in the audience as the last show plays out.
What happens after that? A lot former and current employees will probably converge to drink many drinks and tell tall tales. I keep wondering what will happen to the performers … how will it be to board the train for the last time? And what will happen to the mile-long train? And how will the people who have been LIVING this for decades reform their lives? It’s staggering.
People in the circus never say goodbye. They see “See ya down the road.” I always loved that. It takes the sting out of saying farewell when you have to move on. But there will always be another show. Another city. You’ll meet again down the road.
But now the road has come to an end. Is it really time to say goodbye? It seems so wrong.
Farewell, my beloved circus. I am privileged to have known you.