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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Watching a Circus Not Rise

My memory starts with my dad urging me to watch the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus set up on Circus Hill. He had done so as a kid and caught my interest with tales of watching elephants erect tents and also watching the parade of performers along University Avenue. “You have to get there early,” he told me, “to see the tents go up.”

I did go early; August 4, 1955; I was twelve years old. “Circus Hill” was not a familiar place name to me. There was a swath of open, hilly land that extended from near University Avenue southward to land west of Central High School. I read now that many different traveling circuses had over the decades set up their tent-covered entertainment on the hill. I did not know this land well even though it was less than a mile from my house. I had played a “midget football” game on one of its fields and had weighed in twice at a city-play-ground shack there to make myself eligible for midget football. (The first year I snuck in under the upper limit; the second, despite a bit of fasting, I failed.) I called the whole area “Dunning,” a name that remains today and covers the extensive youth sports complex west of Central High School. I assume I was in error including my dad's Circus Hill in my geographical conception of Dunning.

Other kids were waiting for the same spectacle when I arrived. More boys filtered in until we were a few small clusters numbering about fifteen in total. I was alone. I had not managed to get any of my friends out of bed early. We waited and waited and waited some more. During the wait we were entertained by a group of black kids who, with sticks, a bicycle's seat, and found objects, began to beat out amazing rhythms. I was fascinated by their talent and a bit apprehensive with my rare opportunity to spend time at a racial boundary.

Dunning-Circus-Hill sat at what was the boundary between my white, working-class neighborhood to the north and the black neighborhood to the south. The neighborhoods each ran east-west with University Avenue and its adjacent commercial-industrial land serving as the divider. Wilson High School, a block from my house, was all white, or nearly so. Central High School, a mile futher, was mixed--perhaps more black than white. Central was larger than Wilson; it served most of the less prosperous black neighborhood and much of the affluent white neighborhood further south. Thus Central and Dunning were both racially and economically a long way from my neighborhood. When I was in college Interstate 94 eliminated a wide swath of housing in the black neighborhood, dislocating scores of families and expanding the barrier between neighborhoods. It also cut off Circus Hill from Dunning's rolling fields.

The temperature had risen from cool to mild to warm by the time a circus construction crew rolled in with its tents and elephants. I cringed when I saw how some of the handlers handled their elephants. My vague image is of a hook-like club being wielded with ferocity by small, leather-skinned men against hulking elephants. Tent erection had started late; everything seemed to move at a slow pace. I doubted the circus could be set up in time for the evening show.

Fascinated as I was by what I saw and heard, I eventually got bored and hungry. Also, as more and more of the elements arrived at Circus Hill, I knew I was missing the parade of the circus along University Avenue. I wandered homeward, walking slowly and pausing along University to see the wagons and clowns and other performers parade eastward toward Circus Hill. Having since seen such images in movies and old photographs I feel privileged for having seen the real thing that August day in 1955. Everything and everybody had to get to the circus grounds from a train in a train yard somewhere west of Snelling Avenue. The parade was great publicity built upon absolute necessity.

When Dad came home from work that evening he was eager to hear what I had experienced. He too was bit confused and disappointed with my story. August 4th was a Thursday. A newspaper report appeared in our next evening's newspaper, the St. Paul Dispatch. I remember that Dad, for whom reading the newspaper was almost a religious rite, found the article and read the key facts to me. The circus did open the evening show, but labor problems closed the show before the second act. Everybody in attendance went away disappointed but with a promise of reimbursement.

When, eleven months later, we read that there would never again be a Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey tent show, I felt grateful to Dad for having urged me to go to Circus Hill. I knew even then that I had witnessed a small-but-important slice of history.


Note 1: On reflection, it is curious to me that, for all our interest in the circus, nobody in the family voiced interest in attending. All seven of us must have assumed that going to the circus was a luxury of which we did not partake. I believe it never came up as a possibility nor as a “wish-I-could.” For some reason, we were all below the threshold of that particular “wish-I-could.”

Note 2: Coincidentally, as I began to write this sketch on Sunday, Januray 15, 2017, this headline (from the Los Angles Times) is typical around the country: Ringling Bros. circus to end 'Greatest Show on Earth' after 146 Years. In 1956, when the 'Greatest Show' was was only eighty years old, Ringling Bros. Barnam & Bailey closed its tent show—changing from the romantic traditional image of a tent circus to a an indoor circus that played only in auditioriums and stadiums. From Wikipedia I learn this: On July 16, 1956, at the Heidelberg Race Track in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the circus ended its season early, with President John Ringling North announcing that it would no longer exhibit under their own portable tentns and starting in 1957 would exhibit in permanent venues, such as sports stadiums and arenas that had the seating already in place.
I was twelve years old eleven months earlier, August 4, 1955, when Ringling Bros. Barnam & Bailey came to St. Paul, to Circus Hill in what I called Dunning fields. There, that day, I was an unknowing witness when history pivoted toward the The circus' demise. Our August 5 newspaper reported that the show had been cancelled. I do not remember how much detail was in that article that my Dad read to me. Today I find those details at : … The show played Beloit, Madison and LaCrosse, Wisconsin before heading to St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. … General manager Frank McClosky, manager Willis E. Lawson and assistant manager Walter Kernan had been fired. Immediately after the executives severed their connection with the show at St. Paul on August 4, property boss Robert Reynolds quit. With him went four assistant bosses and about thirty property men. Subsequently, about a dozen others left. When the prop men failed to show up to remove the animal arenas after the first act of the night performance, the show was cancelled. Michael Burke told the audience ticket money would be refunded. ...

(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins 

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