Just more than a year ago, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced the last year of performances for their famed elephants, under pressure from animal rights advocates. So we went online and bought tickets to the Sunday performance in Greensboro, because that was one show I wanted to be sure my son had a chance to experience.
We hadn’t necessarily planned on going again this year. Never did I imagine that at the beginning of this year parent company, Feld Entertainment, would announce its last season of touring for the 146-year-old “Greatest Show on Earth,” citing declined ticket sales after the transition of the elephants out of the show as a key reason.
With the last chance to see something even I remember vividly attending as a child, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so Sunday, we traveled to Greensboro for the 1 p.m. show.
Now a trip to the performance is not just a chance to go sit in a seat, watch performers, eat food and buy souvenirs. It is much more.
Prior to the show, ticket holders have a chance to see the animals — farm animals, camels, elephants when they were still touring, tigers, lions — up-close during the animal menagerie. Let me tell you, last year when the elephants were just 10 or 12 feet away from us, that was incredible. This year was just as exciting to see the tigers and camels, even the two goats that were as tall as the ponies.
It’s not every day that a person from our area gets to spend time just several feet from such amazing animals. When I was a little girl, a traveling circus came through Forsyth County, and I got an opportunity to ride an elephant, and just a couple of years ago, my son got to ride a camel at the Dixie Classic Fair. These are the types of memories that never go away. They help bring a special appreciation for how special these animals are, how docile and beautiful, despite of how large they are.
Once the gates open for admission to the show, there is even more interaction. The arena floor is opened to everyone entering, for a chance to interact with the clowns and some of the performers close-up. To take pictures with them, and have fun.
Last year, my son was a little shy about the whole thing and decided to watch the arena events from our seats. But this year, knowing it was his last chance, he was eager to visit the arena floor and see what was happening up-close.
He got a free temporary tattoo on his hand, put on by one of the acrobatic performers. He got a free clown nose, and was able to watch the BMX trick riders perform and interact with the kids attending. My son proudly boasted that he could pop a wheelie. Who knows, maybe he’ll grow up to make money riding a BMX bike, instead of being a “power man” as he has now said for two years he wants to be.
During the 2016 show, I’ll admit, I got teary eyed as I watched the elephants show off their skills, how gently they could hold onto something fragile after picking up large, heavy items with their trunks, and as they took their last bows for the crowd. You could almost see them smiling as they heard the cheers.
The elephants aren’t gone, just retired to greener pastures. The company maintains its 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, and they are in true retirement as the center is not open to the public. Instead its focus is the “retirement, reproduction and study of the endangered Asian Elephant,” according to its website.
This year, the circus was no different for me. While I didn’t get as teary eyed, I was sad that it was the last time these wonderful performers would have a chance of showing off their talents to such large crowds. And when I say large, I mean a packed house.
I have a friend whose father has worked at the Greensboro Coliseum for decades, and we saw him at the animal menagerie Sunday. He said the upper level tickets we’d paid $15 in advance for, were running $55 on the day of the show, and were in short supply. He said every show last week in Greensboro had about 10,000 people attending.
The show this year went back to some of the more traditional elements like the tight-rope walkers, the girl getting shot out of the human cannon, and other performers clowning around. It also featured the first-ever female ring master, who go down in history as the only female ring master now that the circus is on its last tour.
But this isn’t the last time we’ll have a chance to go to a circus. At least one or two times a year, smaller traveling circuses come through the region, performing at National Guard Armories or other available venues, rather than under the traditional big top tent.
Businesses in the area receive coupons to distribute for free children admission with a paying adult to many of these productions as a way to keep sales up and provide a chance to see family entertainment that is more affordable than the flashy lights, big animals and commercialized feel that the Ringling Bros. circus had become.
These are the type of circuses that Ringling Bros. likely started out as, and grew to the big productions it’s offered audiences in the last few decades.
I look forward to a chance to take my family to a smaller circus. Even without the flashy lights, it’s amazing to watch the skill of the acrobats and performers as they strive to attempt feats no one else can do, something many began training for with their families at a very young age.
I mean, didn’t we all at some point in our lives wish we could travel the world and perform and be part of the excitement of the circus or some other type of show. Or wait, maybe that was just me.
Wendy Byerly Wood is editor of The Tribune and The Yadkin Ripple. She may be reached at [email protected], 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.