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Circus takes final bows, becomes part of our history

  • Written by Joe Boyle

“The Greatest Show on Earth” has left the building for the final time. The Ringling Bros and Barnum Bailey Circus have decided to close forever in May. That means spectators that attended the shows in Chicago and Rosemont will no longer see this circus since they made their last trip here this past fall.

I heard about the news on Sunday while visiting some relatives. While I was surprised I was definitely not stunned. Times are changing rapidly. It was once big news when the circus came to town. Now news of the circus does not draw that much attention.

Of course, a lot has happened in the last couple of years. When Ringling Bros. decided to no longer have elephants as part of the show last year, a dramatic drop in attendance took place. Owners admitted that the elephants had been a large draw over the years because of their dance routine. However, animal rights activists have stated that these animals have been abused over the years.

Other factors played a role in the demise of Ringling Bros. Rising costs have become a burden, along with the fact that younger audiences who are wired to computer games and YouTube are no longer drawn to the circus.

Ringling Bros. employees were informed on Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami. Ringling Bros. have been holding two different shows this year – “Circus Extreme” and “Out of This World.” The final Circus Extreme show will be May 7 in Providence, Rhode Island. The final Out of This World performance will be held May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y.

After 146 years, the lights will go out on the big top at Ringling Bros.

I never attended a circus as a youngster. Like most Chicago neighborhoods, the carnivals would come in with assorted rides and a cast of peculiar characters. Our family would go to a Kiddieland that was located somewhere on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Family trips to the Museum of Science and Industry was always a big deal. I always liked walking down the Old Main Street and getting our picture taken on the old car.

Trips to Riverview were fun during the summer. I remember it was a long drive from our home in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood. But I still remember the bumper cars and other assorted rides.

But Riverview closed abruptly with little fanfare in the mid-1960s. It had its time and I’m glad I can still recall some of those images. We will have those memories of the circus as well. It was a popular facet of American history that would travel by train and stop in small towns across America and large cities as well.

My first time attending a circus was in the mid-1980s. My wife and I worked for different newspapers but it was common in those days to receive passes from management to attend the Ringling Bros. shows and the Ice Capades. The tickets were part of an exchange that took place between Ringling Bros. representatives and the newspapers for free advertising. Some employees would receive passes to attend the shows as part of the exchange.

When we had children, we brought them to the shows and they were entertained. We were able to walk on the circus floor before the show and got an opportunity to meet some of the performers. We had a chance to meet clowns of all shapes and sizes and someone who was described as the world’s tallest man. He was over eight feet and could hardly walk.

But now that I have learned that Ringling Bros. will close, I don’t know if I will miss it. I’m not sure my kids will be sad. It is part of American history and is linked to another age. The complaints of animal activists have merit. Apparently, when the elephants were removed, that was the beginning of the end.

Heck, older residents talk nostalgically about Bozo’s Circus, but the once popular program has been off the air on WGN-TV Channel 9 since 2002. At the end of its run, the show was only on early Sunday mornings, replaced during the week by morning news that is cheaper to produce and more lucrative.

The circus will no longer come to town. They will be part of our past. But I still have memories of the produce man who would yell “strawberries” as he walked down 100th and Michigan Avenue when I was a kid. The Good Humor Man used to drive down our block at night. The knife man would sharpen knives for moms who would greet him as he strolled through the neighborhood.

Those days are long gone, but I remember them fondly.

Joe Boyle is the editor of The Reporter. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .