As a little girl in Soviet Union, I used to love the circus. I loved watching the performing animals, I enjoyed seeing amazing acrobats, and I really loved the clowns.
Unfortunately, lately, clowns have gotten a bad rap. Thanks to The Joker, IT, Krusty, and the simplicity of most clown routines (here in the United States, at least), clowns get no respect. Other than Ronald McDonald, most people can’t name a clown to save their lives. But back in the days of the U.S.S.R., clowns had elaborate, almost intricate routines (in addition to being able to do everything everyone else can but backwards and in large shoes). These weren’t the easy gags, the pie-in-your-face, slapstick funny men — these were performers of intelligence. Some of these clowns worked alone, and at times with dogs or cats.
I was thinking about clowns as I was ordering at McDonald’s the other day. For the most part, McDonald’s has dropped Ronald McDonald from advertising, but still kept the Ronald McDonald House, an organization that helps families whose children are battling cancer. This went through my mind as I was driving away with my two cheeseburgers and small fries … but my mind also went on a circus tangent — back to my childhood.
In my childhood, every major Soviet city had a circus, and every circus had their own arena building — Moscow Circus, Minsk Circus, Keiv Circus. This wasn’t a traveling troupe of performers in a tent. These were professionals. You traveled to them. In front of the Minsk circus building there was a permanent billboard that showed the building how it looked after the war, a bombed-out husk of a site. Then, you would look away from the billboard to the rebuilt building so you could properly admire Soviet rejuvenation and tenacity.
So, how good was the circus, and how talented the performers? The Russians used to brag that their trained bears could beat the Canadian national hockey team in a hockey match.
Once a year, I would go see the circus with a friend, Natasha. Our fathers would alternate taking us — my father one year, her father the next. Most times, the performances were great fun, but one was traumatic — and outstanding! I must have been about 8 or 9 years old. We sat about half-way up, in the middle of the circus amphitheater that went all the way around one large circle. Acrobats jumped and tumbled, jugglers juggled, clowns performed their routine (usually they were given their own slot to do so). Tigers and lions growled and roared, with a king of sound that reverberated through the floor through the soles of your feet and into your chest. Then, the elephants came out. There were probably about six of them, a family of dad, mom and baby that held on to its mom’s tail, and and three more adults. A few minutes after coming out, for reasons I didn’t notice, the baby elephant began to trumpet, a rather tinny sound. The mother took up the call, and within a few minutes all the elephants had raised their trunks and a cacophony of elephant calls filled the air. They ignored the trainers and stomped around, moving toward the seats.
As if by magic, the first three rows of people disappeared — they cleared out. I’ve never seen anything happen this fast. I blinked and the seats were empty — as if the people were swept away with a giant broom. Everyone else were on their feet, confused and scared in equal measure. For just a moment we were all on the plains of Africa, watching elephants do what they are want to do — and were afraid of getting stomped to death by giant beasts.
After the outburst, the animals were quickly calmed and the trainers moved them back behind the curtain, but it took a little time for everyone else to calm down and settle back into their seats. That was not an official part of the show, but it sure was a performance I’ll never forget.
Because of my own childhood, I used to take my own kids to the circus here in the States. I probably enjoyed it as much if not more than they did. That was until the very last performance we ever went to, which was a few years before Barnum & Bailey Circus shuttered its doors for good. By this time, the circus wasn’t allowed to use large animals anymore — or decided it had had enough with the bad publicity, so no more lions and tigers and elephants, oh my! Instead, there were trained dogs and cats. That’s right, trained … cats. And there was … wait for it … singing.
Why, god? Why was there singing? If I was the sort of person who wanted to hear people sing, I would go to see a Broadway play, not the circus. Singing has no place in the circus. Sure, by now you’re probably thinking, “She really has a thing against musicals.” And you would be extremely correct. I do not like musicals. When I watch TV, I do not like people spontaneously bursting into song, especially not during a murder mystery. However, that’s neither here nor anywhere. By the end of that circus, I was gently crying, depressed beyond mere words by the inadequate, lame and otherwise pathetic display by something I would never dignify by the name “circus.” It was a minor heartbreak, but a heartbreak nevertheless. So, when Barnum & Bailey did finally closed shop, I wasn’t either surprised nor disappointed. It was a simple act of mercy that was long overdue.
The circus of my childhood is now idealized in my mind — a near-perfect experience for a child. Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe some things should stay in the past. I feel lucky to have experienced it, though.