Few American towns have a connection to the circus like Forest Park. So the demise of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus really hits home. I have had a soft spot for the 146-year-old “Greatest Show on Earth” ever since I researched the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train disaster. When Ringling Bros. heard about the catastrophe that had befallen their competitor, they immediately offered whatever assistance might be needed in terms of equipment and performers. Thanks to their generosity, the stricken circus only had to cancel one performance.
Fifty-six of those train-accident victims are interred at Showman’s Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery. A group used to commemorate these lost souls every year at the cemetery. But this circus tradition was lost with the recently announced cancellation of Clown Week.
There was also a yearly tradition in town of blessing the clowns. In 2006, 130 people crowded into First United Church of Christ to see Pastor Cliff DiMascio bless 15 clowns from the Shriner’s Circus. The clowns were in costume and performed skits and told corny jokes. The crowd recited a litany, “Blessed are those who make a person smile or laugh.” This service is no longer being held and the Shriner’s Circus is also a thing of the past.
That same year, we honored our past, by using elephants to symbolize our centennial. Forest Park businesses and schools decorated elephant sculptures in distinctive styles. Unlike the brooding elephants at Showmen’s Rest, these creatures didn’t balance on a ball. They weren’t in mourning but raising their trunks in triumph.
The end of the elephant act was one of many causes for the decline of the circus. The shows are also expensive to mount and had trouble competing with newer forms of entertainment. The real kiss-of-death, though, was the criticism they received from animal rights activists. They claimed it was cruel to train these exotic animals and transport them by boxcar. In 2016, Ringling Bros. put their elephants out to pasture.
Last November, we tested the ageless appeal of the circus, by bringing two of our grandsons to the United Center. They were 5 and 3 years old, and I wondered how many snacks and gadgets they’d ask for during the spectacle. I doubted very much they would last for the entire 2½ hour show. But they were enthralled by the big cats, the trapeze artists and the human cannonball. All they asked for was a box of popcorn. Sure, it cost $9, but it kept them munching happily for the rest of the evening.
The elephant in the room was that there were no elephants in the room, but the boys didn’t seem to miss them. They were simply mesmerized by the animal acts and the spectacular stunts. They also got a kick out of the clowns. Good old-fashioned family fun. Now it’s gone due to shifting tastes and concern for the animals.
Family is what circuses are all about. Generations have sawdust in their veins and they traveled together by train, just like in the old days. Many of them cried, when it was time to say goodbye on May 21 in Long Island. They weren’t just losing careers, they were seeing their family torn apart.
I realize I’m an old fogy and I would never claim to be an animal lover. I just hate to see another piece of the American dream gone. Kids can no longer fantasize about running away to join the circus. And my grandsons won’t get another chance to watch wide-eyed while motorcycles whirl inside the cage of death.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.