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Monday, 30 May 2016 16:21

Elephants Came To Town

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The first known circus did not include performing elephants! I have read that it was called the Circus Maximus, of ancient Rome. Opened in 329 B.C., its main attraction was chariot races. Between the races, tightrope walkers, acrobats, and horseback riders entertained the audiences.

The circus, as we know it today, dates from the early 18th century, when acrobats, jugglers, clowns and other entertainers traveled from town to town in search of paying audiences. Around 1768, English horseman, Philip Astley, began performing tricks indoors on horseback. Soon he added comical scenes about a character that could barely get on a horse much less ride it. Audiences loved the show. So Astley added more riders, jugglers, tumblers, animal acts, and a clown. Within a “ring”, a rider on horseback and a clown became the comic elements and main attractions of circuses.

But the first circus in America took place in 1793 in Philadelphia, which was then the capital of the U.S. John Bill Rickett’s circus featured horseback riding as the main attraction, nut rope-dancers, acrobats and clowns also entertained the crowds. President George Washington twice attended the circus!

I first saw a circus in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when the elephants came to town and I was a child of the 1930’s! In the late spring, a week before the arrival of the animals-previously only seen in picture books-brilliantly colored posters were tacked on utility poles or displayed in stores’ windows in our second-class coal mining city.

My friend Cookie and I were both very excited when either her or my mother would take us to the area where the circus train would stop. We were awakened before dawn on that morning and walked the three blocks, behind Miner Park, where the circus would organize itself! Impatiently we waited near the train tracks until we could finally see the big headlight of the train as it came into view, coming closer and closer! The huge wheels of the train finally came to a halt and excitement grew when the boxcars’ doors were opened to the sound of the roaring caged animals inside. All seemed so dangerously exciting.

We watched as the cars were emptied and the workers began the transport of “the circus”

to Miner Park, so close to our houses. We were not allowed in the immediate area where the Big Top was quickly in the process of being set up. The tent was created from the biggest piece of canvas I could have imagined. It was carefully placed in a circle on the ground in the center of the park. A worker stood around the edges of the canvas, in teams of five to pound down stakes to stabilize the huge tent, while centered was the main heavy iron tent stake. They pounded those stakes into the ground with heavy sledgehammers, clanging in perfect timing. Finally, from somewhere among the lesser stakes, the huge circle of canvas, ropes, poles, men and work animals, someone blew a loud whistle. The elephants arrived! They were rigged in harnesses as they began pulling on the ropes attached to the stakes, and the Big Top slowly began rising into the tent it was meant to be! Unfortunately, it was time to walk home and on to school! In the classroom Cookie and I watched the clock, waiting for the hands to reach “twelve”. We hurried home for lunch and were soon awaiting the parade!

At 12:30 our “seats” were on the curb at the corner of Carey Ave. and Corlear Sts. The street was lined with both young and old. We strained our ears awaiting the sound of the band that would lead the parade that had been organized at Miner Park. They were coming! Dressed in red uniforms and marching while playing their instruments. Then horses pranced, while on their backs were beautiful girls in sequined costumes. And, oh, but to hear again the sound of the approaching unique calliope followed by the magnificent and gaudy circus wagons – all gold and red and black and white. Inside those wagons were wild animals, lions, tigers and bears, the only ones I had ever seen were at “circus time”. They were beautiful as they paced in their cages and we all wished they were roaming in the jungle instead in cages. They especially wished it, betcha!

Then came the giant elephants, sad though they probably were, while plodding along trunks to tails, all dressed up and being kept on in line by a trainer with a cane in his hand. More beautiful girls rode on the elephants’ backs. Along the curbs’ sides, clowns entertained. They would do so also under the Big Top at both the afternoon and evening performances, coming out from their quarters I learned was called “Clown Alley”. Oh, how I did “Love a Parade!”

Mother and I would sometimes walk to Miner Park after supper. I always hoped she would take me into the Big Top but when she told me how expensive the tickets would be, I suggested we just look around outside because I had seen the Parade. But I do remember one year we went “inside.” My sister was 16 years older than I. She married when I was five, lived near us for several years, and everyone was happy. But on this one particular “circus day”, she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C.! Mother took me into the Big Top that night but it wasn’t the fun time I had expected, for tears ran down my mother’s cheeks all during the performance. I pretended I didn’t notice nor had I ever thought that mother’s friend/daughter would move away and be so missed. But then, I was young and had not experienced the closeness they had before I came up in the scene during an unhappy time in mother’s marriage.

At the three-ring circus of Ringling Bros., the program that read that horses followed the spoken commands of their trainer as he led them around one ring while they were rider less, rein less and without restraints, thus they were “at Liberty Horses”. Noises made by the funny clowns were too loud and made me jump, nor did I like seeing performers on the high wires above us jumping rope or riding a bicycle. The act was labeled “exciting” but I would have labeled it, in future years, as attempted suicide! Putting some of those caged animals, the caged center ring so that a trainer could coax them to jump through a ring of fire was unbelievable! They were not happy, neither was I! Enough tricks send them back to the jungle, but no one asked me, and 8 year old, to evaluate the pros and cons of “circuses!”

Sad was I for the animals in any lesser circus than prime Ringling Bros. The final act was a daredevil shot from a cannon into a net. I tolerated it with my fingers in my ears, awaiting the big “bang”.

How quickly the years passed until I was taking my children to the Ringling circus sponsored by the Shine Club in the area. It was inside the Armory building in Kingston. During those olden days, John and I purchased Kiddie Rides in a shopping center in that town, where within the small building we also made candy apples and cotton candy. It was soon to be our once-a-year-weekly enterprise to also make candy apples in bulk for the Shine circus to be resold by the organization at the circus. That chapter is another ledger, CHILDREN, 1956-1972 wherein is detailed how our family and Linda Rustay and Marilyn Roughsedge became involved in making over 20,000 candy apples for the circus over a period of several years, until inundation of our Valley when HURRICANE AGNES CAME TO TOWN!

Story Submitted to The Sun Bay Paper by Alice Glawe, Fort Myers Beach, FL

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