Circus life goes on amidst changes

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Everything comes to an end, even if it has endured since the 19th century.

The ringmaster is Johnathan Lee Iverson.
The ringmaster is Johnathan Lee Iverson.

One hundred and thirty-three years after P.T. Barnum first trotted out an elephant named Jumbo to be his star circus attraction, the parading pachyderms continue to seize the spotlight.

But not for much longer.

When Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey leaves Baltimore after its 11-day run at Royal Farms Arena on April 5, it will mark another step closer to the end of the elephant era. That’s because the beasts who are as hugely popular as they are controversial will all be retired by 2018, spending the rest of their lives at the circus’ 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.

“It’s a big deal that the elephants will be going away in a few years,” said Johnathan Lee Iverson, who has been the ringmaster for the past 15 years. “But change is nothing new to the circus. It was a big deal when we went from performing in a tent to moving into the arena. It was a big change when we went from having one ring to three rings. It was big when we brought in female clowns and had African-Americans perform for the first time. There’s a reason why the circus gave people the phrase ‘the show must go on.’ The circus will continue to evolve.”

Alexander Lacey steals a kiss.
Alexander Lacey steals a kiss.

But how? What can Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey do to replace the massive mammals who have been a staple since P.T. Barnum introduced Jumbo in 1882?

Here’s how: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus should keep doing what it did on Wednesday night, as it showed it will have plenty of life long after the elephant act becomes history.

The two-hour spectacle provided plenty of excitement, as it moved quickly from act to act, seamlessly blending human and animal talent.

The Torres Family, who are eight sibling motorcyclists from Paraguay, are worth the price of admission alone for the way they navigate the “Globe of Steel.”

Alexander Lacey risks his life getting up close and personal with nine tigers and a lion, while the Riders of the Wind do tricks on horses that didn’t seem possible. Soaring gymnasts and acrobats captivated the audience’s attention with their aerial tricks, while playful dogs, pigs, goats and miniature horses kept the crowd wondering what could possibly be next.

Dancing elephants perform at the circus.
Dancing elephants perform at the circus.

“The show is an organism in itself – a living, breathing thing,” Iverson said. “It’s unpredictable and the crowd is never bored.”

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey provides children with a first-hand circus experience. Anyone with a ticket can walk onto the floor an hour before the show and get their picture taken with a clown or the man on stilts.

“The circus is a part of Americana,” Iverson said. “It’s special because it respects the innocence of the audience’s imagination. You look out at the crowd and you see people of all ages, young and old and men and women. You connect with them because we’re all part of the history of the circus.”

On Opening Night, kids easily outnumbered adults, making for a loud and festive atmosphere, complete with the aroma of cotton candy and popcorn.

“The circus was way better this year than it was last year,” said Yeoryia Swanson, a seventh grader at St. Mark in Catonsville. “I loved the tricks the dogs and the pigs did and all of the clowns.”

But this night – like countless of others – was owned by the five elephants. Whether it was balancing on one foot, two feet or raising their trunks in unison, the elephants provided an exclamation point to an exhilarating show.

The elephants stole the show.
The elephants stole the show.

“It will be painful without the elephants because of what they’ve meant to the circus and the impact they’ve made, even to our vernacular,” Iverson said. “When you hear the word ‘jumbo,’ where do you think it comes from?”

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — Legends will be in Los Angeles July 9-14, Ontario July 17-21, Anaheim July 24-August 2, San Diego August 6-9, Oakland August 13-17, San Jose August 20-30, and San Francisco September 3-7. 

(All photos by Costa Swanson)