On the Bay

Send in the Clowns One Last Time

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will hold its last performance in Providence from May 4-7

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I don’t remember my first trip to the circus - or, at least, I don’t remember which one was the first one. My childhood memories of the bright lights, the daring acrobatics, the roaring animals that filled the Providence Civic Center are all a blur. A happy blur, uncomplicated by any of the things I would learn later about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. There were women bedecked in sequins and feathers leading elephants through the arena, men doing dazzling motorcycle tricks inside a metal sphere, whole families sailing through the air on the flying trapeze. There was Gunther Gebel-Williams taming his tigers, coaxing them to jump through hoops of fire.

We didn’t know then, or at least didn’t have any real proof, about the treatment of those animals. Sure, we heard rumors, but in the ‘80s, we didn’t have the access to information we have now. But also - and I think I’m speaking for more than just myself here - we didn’t want to know whether those rumors were true. The circus was all glamour and excitement, and when it left town for the year, I had a glossy picture book, something to write about in my school journal, and another plastic souvenir mug that once held a snow cone. Everything else, like that vague shadow in the back of my mind, was gone with the circus trains.

Later, when we knew more about the animals’ living conditions, about what it took to get them to perform those tricks, about how elephants have feelings and families and memories like humans do, the circus lost some of its shine, for me and for a lot of other people. But every time I saw those trains pull into Providence, I would still feel a spark of the excitement I used to feel sitting in the audience, being wowed by the greatest show on earth.

There’s something really beautiful for me, and probably for countless other Rhode Island kids who have memories of the circus’s glory days, that the last stop on the last-ever Ringling Bros. tour is happening in Providence, from May 4–7, at what is now The Dunkin’ Donuts Center (but what will forever be the Civic Center in our memory). The elephants are gone now, as are the most dangerous of the stunts, but I’m going to be in that audience one last time, snow cone in hand, in memory of the circus’s history, and of mine.