If the news about Ringling Brothers hasn’t been totally eclipsed, you are probably aware that The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t that great anymore and, in fact, has scheduled its final, forever, performances for this coming spring.
I don’t think we can blame this on politics. It’s been a long time coming. The public’s entertainment tastes have, shall we say, evolved. When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus lost its elephants to public opinion, it was clear that it was only a matter of time.
The media has covered this story pretty thoroughly, sandwiching it between stories of the bigger circus that threatens to overwhelm us. And I am far from the first columnist to play the circus theme on my political calliope.
The New York Times’ Sam Roberts played the trump card last Sunday, evoking the obvious historical reference to the Roman poet Juvenal, in his belief that the “vox populi” could be quieted with “bread and circuses.”
Unlike Juvenal, I have no pat phrases for current events so I believe I will indulge in a bit of escapism — call it time travel.
Want to get away?
Let’s go to the circus.
In the summer of 1903, Ringling Brothers — still a decade or more away from its merger with the other great American circus, Barnum & Bailey — came to Santa Rosa for the first time.
It wasn’t the first circus in the county. Not by a long shot. Petaluma and Santa Rosa were newly organized towns in 1860 when Dan Rice’s “Great Show and Elephant Exhibition” set up in open fields.
Rice was a clown who offered trained mules named Pete and Barney and the “amazing performing elephants, Victoria and Albert,” as well as a “talking pony,” and offered $10 to anyone who could ride his mules three times around the ring.
There were several others in the years before the railroad, including Dan Castello, whose performers and menagerie would be the starting point for the legendary P.T. Barnum.
In 1869, “for positively one day only,” General Tom Thumb and his wife (presumably “Mrs. Thumb”), billed as “the world’s smallest midgets,” appeared at the courthouse.
Even after the rails came to town in 1870, circuses still came in wagons, sometimes one right after the other, all summer long, setting up in vacant lots.
In 1875, an enterprising Sonoma Democrat reporter caught up with eight small boys seated in the tent “like so many chickens on a fence, their mouths slightly opened, and their honest eyes protruding enough to be scraped off with a stick. … Most of them, without doubt, had performed unheard of tasks for three weeks to get taken to the circus.”
Once Southern Pacific established a link with the transcontinental Central Pacific in 1888, the arrival of the “railroad circuses” was as exciting as the shows themselves.
The sound of the pre-dawn whistle at the North Street depot (definitely not a “quiet zone” despite the proximity of the town’s swankiest neighborhood) guaranteed a flock of youngsters to bear witness to the biggest event of the summer season.
The elephants, unloaded first, hauled poles and canvas for the Big Top to the College Lot — so called because it had been the first home for Pacific Methodist College before it moved north to a Humboldt Street site. (Today, it is the campus of Santa Rosa Junior High.)