Start the spiel:
"Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of ..." Aw, you know the rest.
But there's much about circus life and lore -- as the 138th edition of "The Greatest Show on Earth" parades into the Orleans Arena today through Sunday courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey -- that might have escaped your attention while you've been clowning around in the real world.
Expect razzle-dazzle multiplied by razzmatazz in "Over the Top," a show spanning airborne canines, hoofing elephants, Bengal tiger taming, equestrian stunts, the Flying Caceres teetering above a double-decker trapeze, a motorcycle high-wire act, seven speeding riders in a "Globe of Steel" and more.
So without further ado, a three-ring primer on the unique universe teeming under the world's biggest tent:
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
"After our ringmaster sings the opening production number, our clown is looking for a way to get involved in the circus. When the ringmaster drops his hat, the clown grabs it because he feels if he possesses the ringmaster's hat, he can be in charge of the circus. There's this tug between the ringmaster and the clown about who has the hat. The ringmaster just wants to get on with the show, the adult attitude, and the clown is the child. Every time he has the hat, all the mischievous, funny stuff happens."
-- Producer Nicole Feld
• Circus performers make bracelets out of elephant hair, considering it good luck. (Fortunately, they don't feel the same about the trunk.)
• Popular phrases born of circus life include "Toss your hat into the ring," "Hold your horses" and "Get on the bandwagon." (Citing animal cage cleanup, one could also make the argument for "Watch your step.")
• P.T. Barnum began his career by exhibiting a woman claiming to be George Washington's 161-year-old nurse. (A far freakier attraction would've been George's dentist.)
• Through succeeding incarnations, the circus was known by numerous names, including 1871's P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome. (Marquee makers across America get a collective headache.)
A Doff of the Ringmaster's Chapeau To You:
"If it weren't for P.T. Barnum, there would be no American entertainment, almost. I do my best to channel P.T. Barnum out there. I think I might have been born for this. What I love about the ringmaster's part is I'm the master of ceremonies and the father of the whole experience and at the same time, I'm a member of the audience. I've got the best seat in the house."
-- Ringmaster Chuck Wagner
Circus on the Screen:
• "Trapeze" (1956): High-fliers Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster fall (sorta speak) for Gina Lollobrigida, who's certainly worth double-somersaulting over.
• "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952): Jimmy Stewart goes to bed in his clown makeup in the film that immortalized the notion of having "sawdust in your blood."
• "The Circus" (1928): Clown extraordinaire Charlie Chaplin gets a circus gig, walks a tightrope and wants to play horsey with a bareback rider.
• "Roustabout" (1964) Biker dude Elvis hooks up with a carnival (close enough) run by tough ol' bat Barbara Stanwyck, guns his motor for nubile Joan Freeman and races inside a "Wall of Death."
• "Night Tide" (1961): Horror flick starring Dennis Hopper, who falls head over fin for a sideshow mermaid. ... Well, keep in mind it's Dennis Hopper.
• "Big-Top Pee-wee" (1988): Bow-tied man-child heads to the circus, is smitten (heh-heh!) with a trapeze artist and encounters a freak show featuring Benicio Del Toro as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy. He is not arrested. (That was at a different kind of freak show.)
Don't Frown, It's the Clown:
"Adults will often see a child's shyness around clowns and instantly try to protect the child, or worse, say, 'Look out, the clown will get you!' They think the child is afraid of clowns and they're really not, they're just shy. Experienced clowns get down to their level so you're not towering above them. And you don't enter their space. You don't put out your hand for them to shake and get close and say, 'Hey, it's OK!' The most effective way is to be just as shy toward them as they are of me and lure them out through curiosity and my own gentleness. Then they enter my space, and the bond is there."
-- Clown Tom Dougherty
The Humane Society, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and most aggressively, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals frequently target the circus, alleging cruel and inhumane treatment of animal acts during training, as well as intolerable conditions during transport.
Circus representatives counter that great care is taken with their animals and claim that they use rescued shelter dogs in the show and operate breeding programs for endangered species they use, including the Bengal tiger. In 1995, they unveil the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.
(But tensions remain. A clothed Pam Anderson protests by riding a nude elephant. Customers are confused.)
Ladies and Gentlemen and Worshippers of All Ages:
"I heard that the 60 circuses that travel the United States were being serviced by two full-time religious women and a circus chaplain and I thought circuses could use more full-time personnel. I reach out to people who have not heard the word of God or might be lax in responding to God. It is a call from God. I love traveling and sharing a lifestyle with them and witnessing a love of God."
-- Sister Ruth Fabritze, who tutors children of performers and staff on standard school topics and religion
"God gave me the circus as a blessing and I'm very grateful for it."
-- Ringmaster Chuck Wagner
• "Circus, noun: A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool." (Ambrose Bierce, from "The Devil's Dictionary")
• "Somebody was running a flea circus, but a dog came and stole the show." (punoftheday.com)
• "A circus lion won't eat clowns because they taste funny." (punoftheday.com)
Who Needs To Run Away Just to Join the Circus?:
"I'd hang out behind the scenes at rehearsal and help designers apply sequins and play with the clowns in the clown alley and play musical instruments and help with their props. Circus performers are the most amazing group of people, such a strong sense of family and love and appreciation for kids. All these different cultures and kids growing up learning different languages. And they learn how to play: A child of an acrobat learns how to play guitar from a guy in the band, or learn ballet from one of the dancers. It's a wonderful extended education."
-- Producer Nicole Feld, who grew up in the Feld family of circus producers
Big-Top Trivia, Part Deux:
• Ancient Rome's first circus was called the Circus Maximus. (At the opening, an enraged Russell Crowe hits an usher with a spear.)
• Rome's second most notable circus is called the Circus Flaminius. (Its creator is Bugsamus Siegelimius.)
• Despite restrictions imposed by World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt grants special dispensation to the circus to travel by rail. (The move lends new meaning to the idea of training acts.)
• The most famous circus song, "Entrance of the Gladiators" (later known as "Thunder and Blazes") was written in 1897 by Czech composer Julius Fucik. (An outraged Pat Robertson boycotts his last name.)
• In 1956, Life magazine declares of circuses: "A magical era has passed forever." (A half-century later: R.I.P. Life magazine.)
• The first clown college is created in 1968. (Recent graduates include Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse.)
SPEAKING OF WHICH:
"A lot of times in America we don't understand the clown, the historical context. Clowning has been around for about 5,000 years. There's a philosophy around clowns because it's an act of love. You're actively participating in the creation of joy. It's an attitude that's increasingly hard to find these days because of the selfish society we live in. You have to give yourself to another person and the audience, sacrifice yourself."
-- Clown Tom Dougherty
And With This Final Thought, We Send You Back Out Into the Three-Ring Circus of Life:
"Even if you're 92, you leave the circus with the heart of a 6-year-old."
-- Ringmaster Chuck Wagner
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0256.