Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Greatest Show On Earth

We went to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last Friday and – as is my wont – I am going to write about it.
I’ve never been partial to the circus. I don’t know why, but it just never appealed to me that much. I didn’t dislike the concept, I just didn’t care. I have been to several different circuses at different times throughout my life. I remember going to the above circus when I was young, but I don’t remember specifics. I don’t think it made much of an impression.
            Later on I went to some sort of smaller-scale circus with my mom and some kids of a friend of hers. We were at a resort or vacation spot and they had a small tent where animals, clowns, and some other performers would put on a show on a daily schedule. The only thing I recall about that one is how bad it smelled. That smell wasn’t helped by the fact that my mom had to escort one of those kids – they were twins – back behind the bleachers to poop. He was young and we were pretty far away from any facilities. I suppose the only available option was to let him poop behind the bleachers and then wipe his behind with his underwear. I know this because as we walked out of the tent I saw a comparatively large turd sitting there in the sawdust with some little boy underpants situated on top. I said, “Oh, gross – somebody pooped behind the bleachers!” and my mom said, “Be quiet.” That’s when I put two and two together and realized why Mom and Daniel had been gone for so long, leaving me alone with Michael – the weird one; but the one who at least didn’t poop in public forums. As far as I know.
Oh, the poop stories I could regale you with here. But today is circus day!
I think I attended a few other circuses, but it’s definitely been at least twenty years since the last one. I’ve never seen that traveling Frenchy pervert show that is Cirque du Soleil and I don’t intend to. But when the opportunity came up to get free tickets to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus I was excited.
I’ve found that many experiences are enhanced by having a kid with me. Things that I might not care about or would find boring suddenly become exciting and different when you are sharing them with fresh, young eyes and a mind that is absorbing every little piece of stimulus like a sponge does water. Every new experience leads to learning more not only about my son, but also about myself and human development in general.
One thing about sharing new experiences is that you have to be prepared to abandon them. I always go into movies or activities or whatever that my son is experiencing for the first time ready to pack up early and go home. After a reasonable amount of discussion, of course. But I’m not going to make him sit through something he isn’t enjoying. My dad did that to me with countless different things and it didn’t make me like those things, it just made me not like my dad.
So we got set up to go to the circus. Me and the missus discussed whether or not to go an hour early to meet the performers and whatnot, but decided against it. The attention span of a five-year-old is an unpredictable thing. We figured we’d be doing well to make it through an hour of circus, never mind adding an hour of unspecified events on the front end. Also, we would have had to leave the house extra early to deal with rush hour traffic.
We made it downtown easily enough. I don’t particularly like being down there and I certainly don’t like taking Lil’ Troublemaker down there, but in the interest of Fun Family Time I’ll deal with it. We parked a bit further away than we needed to, but it was a lot I’ve used before and I knew exactly where it was in respect to Phillips Arena. We wouldn’t have to wander anywhere or get our bearings after the event. It was a decent little walk to CNN Center, but we made it in good time. As soon as we got inside I found a bathroom.
I need to go back a bit here. I find taking my son into public restrooms to be an absolute nightmare. I hate using public restrooms, but over the years I have grown to accept that sometimes it is a thing that just has to happen. But they are fucking filthy and disgusting and I do my best to not have any more contact with anything than I have to. A five-year-old does not have the same understanding of the concept of not touching anything. Lil’ Troublemaker is definitely grossed out by public restrooms, but not nearly enough. He simply doesn’t appreciate all of the different ways that you have to control your body and clothing and whatever else to minimize contact with the filth. So when I accompany him into one I become a neurotic mess. And the nightmare of all nightmares would be to have to take him into a Phillips Arena restroom. Quite literally. The night before the circus I actually had a nightmare about taking him to the restroom in Phillips. God forbid he needs to poop. I’d probably just take him behind the bleachers.
Anyway, the CNN Center has relatively acceptable restrooms. We hit those and managed to not touch anything. Then we entered Phillips Arena.
It was pretty awesome right from the start. As soon as we got inside, there were brightly lit kiosks covered in cotton candy, flavored ice, stuffed animals, and all manner of other circus-oriented merchandise. The circus actually travels around with themed kiosks to sell their wares and it made a huge difference in the atmosphere. While there were no actual games or attractions, the perimeter of the arena felt like a carnival and put you in a certain mood. Wanting to get Lil’ Troublemaker into things as quickly as possible, I asked him if he saw anything he wanted – cotton candy, a crazy hat, a plastic tiger with rainbow-colored ice in its head? But he wasn’t interested.
The show had already started when we got to our seats, and in what was probably the best possible situation the Big Cats were in the center ring. My son loves animals and nothing is going to capture his interest faster than animals doing stuff. And these were huge animals acting dangerous and doing stuff.
The Lion Tamer (is that what you call him?) put on a heck of a show and our son was on the edge of his seat the whole time. The cats – one huge male lion, four tigers, and four lionesses – performed specific routines at his command. On occasion one of the cats would swipe at the Tamer with a huge paw or sometimes even snap at him with their maws full of teeth; thrilling the audience. I’m sure all of that is just part of the show, but it worked. The cats and the Tamer went through a series of sitting, standing, and jumping routines that culminated in the male lion sitting on top of a massive, rotating disco ball with the Tamer.
After they left, the lights dimmed and six orbs covered with silken tarps were raised into the air on either side of the floor. Once they reached a certain height, the tarps fell away to reveal transparent globes with girls inside. They performed a routine that involved all kinds of writhing about inside of the spheres. Then the spheres opened up and the girls started dangling without a net or harness high above the floor. Our jaws collectively dropped as we watched these girls hang out of the opened spheres and perform all sorts of physical feats.
Once they retreated into their spheres, two elephants sporting the livery of the circus came out from the back. Each had a rider on top. I didn’t realize until they dismounted that they could have been twins.
I want to take a second here to acknowledge the Ringmaster. He was absolutely fantastic all night. I don’t know how much of what he did I have in me, but from now on I think I am going to aspire to be more of a Ringmaster for MCW than a ring announcer. That may be a subtle difference or it may be something that I just can’t quite do, but he was my favorite part of the show. He held everything together and gave a certain grand air to the proceedings. Everything that happened seemed just a bit more special because he was introducing it and that’s what I want my MCW performance to be.
So the Ringmaster introduced the girls as the Hair-Hanging Twins (or something) as a large harness descended from the ceiling and the girls attached hoops woven into their hair to that harness which then lifted them from the elephants’ backs and into the air. By their hair. It was crazy. The two spent the next several minutes performing feats of follicle strength that were never technically more impressive than the initial hanging, but simply involved different positions and seemed more death-defying. But then the finale got seriously more crazy:
No net, nothing.
And then the Ringmaster started singing about dragons, which I was totally not expecting. And the song was really catchy, which I would have expected even less if I had known enough to expect songs in the first place. It turns out there was a theme to the show (which we had missed by being a few minutes late) and it was about the Ringmaster’s dwarf buddy having the heart of a dragon. So we get a whole song and dance (literally) about dragons. And it was good.
Then the Shaolin Monks came out.
Their first demonstration was bringing out quarter staffs (or maybe buck-and-a-quarter quarter staffs) and breaking them across one another’s backs, chests, heads, and arms. It was nuts. Lil’ Troublemaker was blown away. The Monks followed that with feats of strength, skill, and tolerance such as bending iron bars with their chests, balancing on spear heads, and diving through rings of flaming swords. While blindfolded:
It was all really impressive and a part of the show I wasn’t expecting. Of course, I didn’t know what to expect. I went into the circus not knowing anything except that there was some vaguely defined dragon theme. Apparently my son was better informed, because at one point he leaned over and told me he wanted to leave when the dragon came out. I had no idea what he was talking about and didn’t know why he thought a dragon would be coming out. I found out later that Mrs. Troublemaker had told him about the dragon expecting to get him excited about the circus, but instead had made him nervous about the possibility of being burned to a crisp at the circus. Sometimes she doesn’t think these things through.
After the Shaolin Monks finished the clowns came out and did a parody of what we had just seen it was pretty funny and it had Lil’ Troublemaker cracking up, particularly after one of the clowns jumped through the hoop of swords, drank some water, and sprang leaks all over his body.
The clowns were as constant and important a part of the show as the Ringmaster. They were always hovering around the perimeter, playing along with whatever was happening in the three rings. Several stood out as being “main” clowns. You could tell they were senior performers and sort of in charge of the antics.
Next up were a pair of acrobat teams. They started by flipping back and forth between balance beams:
And then from the balance beams to stacks of people:
Each act had its own particular type of style and entertainment value and they all moved so fast you never had a chance to get bored. I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point the dragon poked its head out of the main curtain. Lil’ Troublemaker saw it and said he wanted to leave, but I told him that it wasn’t coming out yet and that I didn’t think it would until the end of the show.
Next up were the aerialists and I made a point of telling Lil’ Troublemaker that that’s what Dick Grayson’s family did. He knows that already, but I always try to relate things to him. Robin is his favorite comic book character and Dick is his favorite Robin. Thanks to Young Justice he’s starting to like Tim and he likes Damian because of his hood and also the fact that he’s actually Batman’s son.
I suppose the aerialists were good, but for some reason I wasn’t all that interested in them. As astonishing as what they were doing was, I was still reeling from those chicks in the globes and the hair girls. They did their thing without a net.
Next up were some clowns doing a riff on the princess in the tower thing. It was pretty funny and ended up with the dwarf rescuing her, but the bit featured an awful lot of bad music. The kids all loved it, though.
After that it was animal time and the point where Lil’ Troublemaker just about lost his mind trying to keep track of everything that was going on. In the left ring there was a young lady putting goats, ponies, and I think a tiny llama through a series of tricks and maneuvers. The rightmost ring featured a couple of trainers and about eight or nine different cats doing tricks on hoops, poles, and risers.
But the center ring was the big show. That’s where ten dogs of varying breeds were performing the most amazing variety of canine tricks I had ever seen. And my son’s eyes were as big as dinner plates. He tried to keep track of the goats and he’d glance over at the cats from time to time, but those dogs were blowing his mind. I was quite taken with them myself, as I only actually got a couple of pictures. I found myself just sitting there watching him watch the dogs. The bit ended with a breathtaking stunt where the main dog – he might have been a Jack Russell – was raised high up into the air and jumped off of a platform into his trainer’s arms.
Once the animals went to the back, the acrobats came back out and did some absolutely crazy stunts. They started off by flipping from teeter-totters onto the shoulders of stacks of people. They ended by flipping perfectly onto chairs at the tops of twenty-foot poles. It was really amazing. So amazing that I once again failed to take pictures. At this point Lil’ Troublemaker was totally into everything that was happening and between watching his reactions to everything and actually trying to watch everything I found myself taking fewer pictures.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but there was a point where a line descended from the ceiling. The Ringmaster’s little dwarf buddy – the one trying to prove he had the heart of a dragon – grabbed onto the handholds and proceeded to do his own aerial act; probably about twenty feet in the air. Lil’ Troublemaker absolutely flipped out. It was damned impressive.
After the acrobats it was time for the signature stars of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – the elephants. I don’t know what it was, but this was the one act where everybody in the arena seemed equally entranced. There was just something mesmerizing, special, and classic about watching those pachyderms dance and perform.
I don’t know how I feel about the show’s chosen Main Event. The last major act was the thing where motorcycle stunt drivers ride around in a huge steel sphere. I’m not going to deny that it’s amazing. It also provides a great visual and creates the same breathless atmosphere that the girls in the orbs and the dog jumping off of the pole had. But even when I was a kid – and I remember when they introduced this bit – I felt like the motorcycles weren’t very circus-y. The big, loud pieces of machinery just didn’t seem to fit in with everything else; all of which is some form of organic animal achievement. I still feel the same way.
But I didn’t mention any of that to Lil’ Troublemaker who simply could not believe that all of those motorcycles were driving into the sphere. He stood up out of his seat when our buddy the dwarf got on his own little motorcycle and entered with them.
After a few rounds of stunts, the ringmaster asked if we were ready for eight motorcycles. At this point a funny thought occurred to me and I very deliberately took a picture and posted it to Instagram with this caption:
Eight motorcycles! Meanwhile, the L5P Halloween parade can’t even have one!”
It’s a reference to the fact that a lone motorcycle got out of control while going approximately five miles per hour and crashed into the back of a van at Atlanta’s most popular alternative culture Halloween event. It was embarrassing for all involved.
After the motorcycles, it was time for the Grand Finale, and it was indeed grand. Our dwarf buddy ascended to the top of the motorcycle globe and did a dragon-summoning dance while the Ringmaster sang the dragon song. And when that dragon’s head parted the curtain and then the body followed and my son just sat there and watched without saying anything or asking to leave, I knew that the circus had done its job. It had won him over. By the end he trusted them that whatever was going on was going to be worth his while and worth overcoming his anxiety about dragons to stay and see. And he was right.
To me the dragon was a big piece of machinery mounted on top of a couple of pneumatic lifts. It was a little wobbly but pretty neat-looking. When it breathed fire you could see the nozzle in its mouth pouring out the green flame. It went in a circle around the dancing midget and then back behind the curtain.
To my son, this was a massive scaled beast flying majestically through the arena, beholden to the commands of the Ringmaster’s dwarven sidekick; who had earned the right to commune with the great lizard. The smoke filling the arena wasn’t there to conceal the mechanism lifting and propelling this dragon; it was there because this thing was flying through the air and belching fire all over the place. He asked me how the dragon was moving and rather than spoil the illusion I just told him I didn’t know.
Afterward the Ringmaster gave the dwarf his props for having the heart of the dragon and everybody came back out for a big musical number. “You’ve Got the Dragon In You” may not be the best song ever, but I’ve got to say that last Friday it totally was.
When the circus comes to your town, go. Especially if you’ve got kids. It was a fantastic night for all three of us. Two things, though – first, go early and meet the performers. Second, there is seating available on the floor of the arena. I don’t know how much it is. It might be insanely expensive. But if you can afford it, do it. I can’t even imagine how amazing it would be to sit that close to all of the action. But whatever the case and wherever you sit, get out to that circus. It really was the Greatest Show On Earth.
-Phantom

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