Behind the scenes at the Ringling brother’s circus
This is the year the Ringling brother’s circus will be retiring the stars of their show: The Asian elephants. It seems unreal that after 146 years, soon you won’t even see them in the posters around the city. This is what makes these last shows so special. In a few decades, when kids watch Dumbo, an elephant in the circus will be more odd to them than a flying one. Despite all the complaints, there is a good reason for retiring these intelligent creatures. The elephants will live on at the Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation near Disneyworld. Scientists will be able to study the elephants there to research why elephants rarely suffer cancer.
After my friend saw the show three times in Baltimore, he easily convinced me to go see it in DC. He made us come an hour before the start and surprised us with backstage tickets. With a smile I put on the VIP guest pass around my neck and began following our tour guide, Benny Bara.
He started off by showing us some of the costumes used in the show over the years. Some
were 36 years old and could weigh up to 16 pounds. A lady ran up to us and showed us her sketches for a mermaid costume in the show. Then she proceeded to grab one of the finished versions of her creation. She explained that they used to make all their own costumes but now they hire a company to do it.
As we continued on the tour, we saw the tightrope acrobats practice on a metal wire the width of a nickel. Near them were some trampolines and a canon. We were told the trampolines cost $45,000 dollars. The canon had to be kept warm before the show using heaters to avoid any cracking when the device went off.
Next we walked by a large platform which was the ringmaster’s float. My experienced friend asked if it was remote controlled. Our tour guide responded by opening the float and revealing a glorified golf cart with a custom chassis. After a few obligatory pictures on the seat, we continued our tour.
During the preshow, they have one of the elephants paint a piece of art with their trunk. Benny told us that a man once offered over $10,000 dollars for the painting. Yet this would not be fair to the lucky winner of the draw so they had to deny his request.
We met many of the performing actors and learned a lot of interesting facts. For example, the train they travel on is a mile and a half long and all the workers, crew, and actors all live in it. My friend filled his circus book with autographs from every performer he recognized. Everyone was polite and friendly. Although we weren’t allowed to see the animals, we were lucky enough to walk in front of the elephants as they were getting ready for the show. The ringmaster even came up to us and offered to take our picture in front of the gigantic mammals.
Once the tour was done, we had just a few minutes before the show started. I ran to the stands and bought around $40 worth of food and drinks — which translates to one bag of popcorn and two beers. Before I could start complaining to my friends about the absurd prices, the lights dimmed down and a single clown came out to introduce the ringmaster.
Everything was quiet when the ringmaster burst out of the curtains in the float I just sat in. Music blasted out of the speakers as he began singing the star spangled banner. Right behind him was a woman waving the American flag on an elephant. After another musical number with even more parading elephants, the show was ready to begin.
The first act was six two-humped camels carrying young Asian women in shiny costumes. There was one man on a horse in the center with a long whip. With every crack the camels would change positions and the women would spin around the humps or strike elaborate poses.
After a very creative high wire act, we finally got to see the canon in action. With a loud bang the 25-year- old woman flew at a maximum speed of 60mph and landed safely on a well-placed cushion. Thanks to Google, I later find out there’s actually a spring or compressed air mechanism inside the canon — since a regular canon would just blast her into pieces. Not the best thing to show to hundreds of kids.
Following this, they brought out the strongmen. One man seemed to defy all logic by supporting a combined weight of 880 pounds of weights and humans. Yet this act was just the precursor to the real stars of the show. Once the strongman left the arena, the ringmaster came out yet again to introduce the elephants.
A total of five elephants came out in a line holding their tails with their trunks. To start, they had them stand on small platforms while spinning and swinging to the music. Next they had them sit on the platforms with their front legs lifted. It gave them an almost human appearance seeing them sit like that. Once the clowns poured in, they began to interact with the elephants in many fun ways. They even had the elephants play jump rope with a clown using their trunks.
After a short intermission — in which I spent another $40 on food and drinks — the show was ready to continue. Next came the mermaid act, whose costume designer we had met. The women hanged at a deadly height while spinning inside hoops. The light show that accompanied this scene enhanced the experience.
Finally, our tour guide came out on the arena. His show consisted of a spinning pendulum that could reach a height over forty feet. He would jump inside and out of the pendulum’s circle all while spinning in circles. The whole crowd gasped when he nearly tripped jump-roping at a dangerous height. I later I find out through my experienced friend that he pretends to trip on every show.
I was too mesmerized by his act to realize they had already set the next one. In an instant, the lights changed focus to the center of the arena and revealed a whopping sixteen tigers. The tigers were contained inside a cage to a thankful crowd. He would roar commands and cracked his whip to make them jump and interact with the props. One of my friends worried he was being too aggressive — the tamer would have to be so he would not end up a snack.
For the penultimate act, they brought out a dozen groomed poodles that put on a great show. The dogs would stand in twos while a small puppy would jump over their extended paws. The show had two trainers that ran with the poodles; shouting commands and rewarding the good dogs with treats. At one point, the dogs formed possibly the cutest conga line in existence.
After the canine spectacle, they distracted us with people jumping and flipping in sync on trampolines while they prepared the final act. Once the acrobats were done, the stage had been set: large ramps and quarter pipes for bikers to show off. Although entertaining, the BMX tricks felt a bit out of place in the circus. It would have been wonderful to experience a typical trapeze act that the show lacked.
Other incarnations of the show do have a trapeze act. This was the “Xtreme” version, the “Legends” one has different performances. Yet at the end of the day what made this night so special was the elephants. The circus will never be the same after these creatures retire. After all, what movie would Dumbo have been without Dumbo?
For more information about the show and tour dates click here.
Garrett Cleary is an Irish freelance artist from Madrid. You can check out some of his work here!