Feats of derring-do! Amazing acrobats! Clowns both ridiculous and poignant! Majestic animals from around the world!
For centuries, the circus has transported audiences to an enthralling in-between place: a version of our world where gravity seems to disappear and everything sparkles with glitter.
The circus welcomed almost all comers who could earn their keep. Ordinary people in search of adventure could literally run away with the circus. And talented misfits found a home where what made them different made them special. They all came together to form a family that traveled the world, leaving spangly dreams in their wake.
Life in the circus was a unique combination of hard work and glamour, celebrity and disdain, excitement and ennui, with a hierarchy that ranged from the top (trapeze artists) to the bottom (roustabouts). But when the crowds departed, and the spotlights dimmed for the night, most of the performers were also responsible for tasks that didn’t inspire applause: caring for animals, packing up wagons, training and stretching, cooking and cleaning.
In this episode, we go behind the greasepaint and red velvet curtains to get curious about the circus. We discuss the larger-than-life characters who created the modern circus and discuss what’s happening in the world of new circus and theater. Then we share the many books that confirmed our desire to run away with the circus.
The Elephant Hotel: Built by circus impresario Hachaliah Bailey in honor of his elephant Old Bet in his hometown of Somers, New York. It’s now a National Historic Landmark.
Barnum & Bailey Circus: For 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was The Greatest Show on Earth. It closed for good in 2017.
American Circus Schools: These schools offer classes for adults and children interested in learning circus arts. In Philadelphia, the Circadium School of Contemporary Circus and Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. In Brattleboro, Vermont, the New England Center for Circus Arts.
Circus Now: A non-profit organization that encourages and promotes circus as an art and a practice in North America. Visit the Circus Now website.
Letní Letna Circus Festival: Held annually in Prague since 2004, Letní Letna is an international celebration of new circus and theater. The Letní Letna website features photos, videos, and stories from the festival’s history. (One of our favorites is Cirque Alfonse from Canada.)
Clown Funeral, a.k.a., Grimaldi Service: On the first Sunday of February each year, the Grimaldi Service is held at All Saints Church in London.
Graeter’s Ice Cream: As David explained in the show, Graeter’s in Cincinnati is the greatest ice cream on Earth.
Mel’s mom in the circus: In 1967, Roni Stramara — soon to be Joulwan and eventually, Mel’s mom) was a reporter for the Pottsville Republican newspaper (which, TBH, is probably how Mel’s affection for the circus started). She went undercover in the Cole Brothers & Clyde Beatthy Circus, the same one that is the backdrop for the story of Bruce Feiler’s book Under the Big Top.
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Top image courtesy of Library of Congress.
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