Under The Big Top Before It Folded


The recent news that Ringling Brothers “Greatest Show On Earth” will fold the canvas for the final time
May 16 brought back a flood of memories beginning some 63 years ago in Lansing, Michigan.

My Dad was a photojournalist and he pulled me out of Mrs. Barnes’ second grade class at Bretton Woods School to go with him as he photographed the early morning arrival of the Ringling Bros. circus. Wagons drawn by horses and elephants pulled the entire show–tent, bleachers, animal cages, ticket office, EVERYTHING from the rail siding to the fairgrounds.

Mom scolded him saying it was setting a bad example to take a kid out of school for a circus. He responded with, “Honey, it’s HISTORY. He may never get a chance like this again.” That was in 1953.

What a day it was! I got to meet Emmett Kelly the famous “Weary Willie” clown who seldom smiled. Kelly gave me a little paper about the size of two business cards with a poem he had written about a smile. He said “a smile is rest to the weary, comfort to the sick, and cannot be bought sold or stolen–it can only be given away.” Over my writing career I have shamelessly paraphrased his verse.

Frazier as “Freddy the Fireman,” 1968 in the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus

Dad also found Clyde Beatty the famous animal trainer who entered a cage with lions, tigers, and all sorts of big cats. He wore a pistol, cracked the whip, carried a wooden chair and was generally the Evel Knivel daredevil of his day. I offered a shy kid limp-wristed handshake and never really thought much about Clyde until 15 years later.

I had just returned from my Army service in Vietnam and was working for the Ypsilanti Press outside Detroit when my editor told me the CLYDE BEATY-COLE BROS. CIRCUS was coming to town and he wanted my to “get some pictures.” (Clyde Beatty had passed away a few years earlier)

No longer the shy 7-year-old, I located the head clown and asked if I could do a “clown’s eye view of the circus,” in photographs. Of course I told the head clown I had met both Clyde Beatty and Emmett Kelly “years ago.” He painted me up and with some gear from the local fire department, I was ready to perform. I snapped photos as we did the walk around, sat on some old ladies laps, and acted goofy for about 6 minutes.

These days with Emmett, Clyde, the elephants, and now even the Greatest Show on earth gone forever, it is really nice to have fond memories and some photographs. Both are valuable.

Comments & Discussion

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. NOTE TO PARENTS: If you EVER have a chance to pull your child out of school to attend a circus… DO IT!!

    (It’s a safe bet that our editor’s memories are far more valuable to him, than anything he might have learned from Mrs. Barnes on that particular day. And I’m grateful that he chose to share his happy memories with us!)

    I’ve never had a chance to attend a Barnum-Bailey Circus (the real deal!)… but I have happy childhood memories of attending the Shrine Circus at Bronco Stadium, when it was (comparatively) tiny and made of wood. I don’t know how all those clowns got into that tiny car! And I thought cotton candy was NASTY stuff – even back then!

  2. Are you still sitting on old ladies’ laps? Or just acting goofy?

  3. Great story, thank you for sharing.

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