By Nancy Menard, Charlotte
Editor’s note: This new column features the memories of those who remember a different place in time. The world is changing rapidly. As we all scramble to keep up, it’s important to slow down and remember days gone by with our Charlotte neighbors. Do you have a memory to share? Send your submissions to Lynn Monty.
I love the circus. I have always loved the circus. When I read that the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus was folding its tents, I knew I had to see them one more time.
“Get up, girls! We’re going to the circus!” It was a summer morning in the 1950s, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus was coming to Montpelier, where I grew up. My sister and I couldn’t believe it. We had read about the circus in our Weekly Reader, but certainly nothing that wonderful had ever happened to us in rural Vermont. We hurriedly dressed, grabbed some breakfast and headed off with our dad.
The circus was playing in the big field where Montpelier High School is now. Back then, it was an empty farmer’s hayfield, recently mowed for this event. When we arrived we could see a bustle of activity— many circus train cars on the siding, what seemed like hundreds of people running around, and lots of enormous elephants. Kids from town were perched on their bicycles around the edge of the field. We parked and joined them, eyes wide so not to miss a thing. The massive white tent was spread out on the grass, covered with a spiderweb of ropes. As we watched, the elephants picked up the ropes with their trunks, and with verbal cues from their handlers they slowly backed up. The tent rose into the air and was magically transformed into the big top. All around us, the train cars were being unloaded. Colorful, painted circus wagons pulled by beautiful horses held monkeys, exotic birds, and lions and tigers. To a child from the country, it was all wonderful.
That evening we returned for the performance, which once again exceeded all expectations. We had good seats on bleachers, but it was frustrating to have three rings of action as I could not give each one the attention it deserved. The lights dimmed, the band played a drum roll, and the spotlight shone on the top of the tent, where women in sparkly swim suits and men in shiny leotards literally flew through the air. At that moment, I was hooked and I knew it was my destiny to be an acrobat.
Eventually, I became a nurse, not an acrobat, but over the next 60 years the thrill of the circus never left me. Various events continued to fan the flames. In the late 50s, the movie The Greatest Show on Earth drew my sister and me to the local theater at least three times. Each time, I wiped tears from my eyes when Cornel Wilde fell from the trapeze and was left partially paralyzed. In the 1970s, my sister-in-law and I took our children to New York City. Included in that visit, in addition to the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Towers, was a Barnum and Bailey performance at Madison Square Garden. Everyone bought little flashlights for a quarter, and when cued by the ringmaster the lights went down and thousands of fireflies lit up all over the stadium. It was magic.
The kids and I also took in some lesser-known circuses, such as the Moscow Circus in Montreal. The muzzled bears made us sad, but the horses were magnificent. Our son, who was about 10 at the time, was very impressed by the horses’ linguistic talents. We sat close to the entrance to the arena, and he could hear the riders directing their mounts. He turned to me in awe and said, “Mom, they taught those horses to speak Russian!”
I saw the circus once more in Boston Garden in the 90s, but my life and that of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey has not crossed paths again. Then I read that it would soon all be over, and I knew that I needed to see one more performance for “closure.” I wasn’t sure I could find a traveling companion, since I had never shared my secret circus love with any of my adult friends. My husband would much prefer a Civil War battlefield, so I crossed him off my list. I casually mentioned it to a friend who loves theater, and she said that although she’d never seen it she’d like to go. The nearest show was in Manchester, New Hampshire, an easy down-and-back trip for a matinee. Once I had the tickets, I looked forward to the show just as much as I did as a child.
Having to pass through a metal detector at the entrance to the arena was a jarring reminder of our new reality. But once inside the stadium, I felt like that little kid again. The music, the strobe lights, the fireworks, the clowns and the incredible costumes all carried me back to a time when a child’s entertainment did not depend on a hand-held device.
The ringmaster for this unit was a woman (perhaps another small crack in the glass ceiling). She was dressed in a beautiful red, white and blue sequined gown and entered astride a majestic black horse. When the band finished playing the National Anthem, the horse bowed to the flag and then carried his rider around the ring. The next two hours were filled with amazing acts of skill and beauty. One aerial act was done in almost total darkness, by performers wearing red, white and blue glow-in-the-dark costumes. As they turned and twirled near the ceiling, it was like watching a heavenly garden of flowers, swaying in the breeze from the angels’ wings. I held my breath as the tightrope walkers went back and forth high above the crowd, each incredible trick preceded by a drum roll, with a clap of cymbals when it was completed.
After two glorious hours, it was over, with a huge parade for the finale. Performers from many different cultures had shared their best talents with an audience that appreciated the gift. When the last performer had left the ring and the house lights came up, my friend turned to me and said,” I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon!” Neither can I.