The Greatest Vanishing Act
I was stunned to read the following headline that I thought I’d never see, a prime example of a disturbing trend, living in what has become our own tiny bubbles, creating our little personalized echo chambers.
The CNN headline reads as such:
Famed Ringling Bros. circus closing after more than 100 years
Love it or hate it, there has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the Greatest Show on Earth.
But as steeped in controversy as it has been for the last decade or so, there was once a time when these traveling troupes provided much-needed distraction and entertainment for isolated communities.
I have had the rare fortune to have lived in a community that held such a unique relationship with those traveling troupes at one point in time. Cue the Patterson Traveling Circus, whose Winter Quarters were placed almost directly on the railway line.
The Patterson Traveling Circus was borne from the Gentry Bros. Circus, and as such, a conglomeration of many other sideshow acts and carnivals, changing ownership along the way, at one point obtaining the Sipes Circus in 1898.
Jump ahead to today.
I have had the opportunity to speak with Rod Sipe (no relation to the 1898 mention, a name is all that’s shared) regarding the Patterson Traveling Circus. His family name is well-known to me, as his mother was a teacher of mine. I was unaware that the Sipes also ran carnival concession stands during the summer months. The Patterson Traveling Circus Winter Quarters are still in use, for Rod’s sideshow and performance art.
This Tall Grass Showman shared with me his disappointment upon hearing the announced fate of the Ringling name, but also shared that the closing only creates a space that will need to be filled. Each Ringling performer is a private, independent contractor. Rod warns that the sudden explosion of these private contractors seeking work may have a somewhat lopsided effect on the market of performers in Shriner’s Circuses, and show as an unequal disbursement of talent for some time.
The announced Ringling closure is unbelievable to both fans and employees. Another danger of believing that one name, one banner is simply too big to fold, too big to fail. They have 2 trains, after all. An entire travelling and once-thriving community of not only employees, but entire families and children will be uprooted and decimated by this decision.
However, the Ringling name may not be completely dead. Kenneth Feld of Feld Entertainment may have an alternate plan for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which at one point in time was sold by Feld Entertainment to Mattel in 1971 (That’s right, the toy company). *Mattel, it’s speculation here, merely speculation – lacking in experience must have ended up losing money in this venture – again, simply speculation, cut their losses, and sold it back to Feld Entertainment for what must have been pennies on the dollar in 1982.* Rod states that Ringling may simply downsize a great deal, and travel by truck instead of rail. Royal Hanneford Circus might step in, becoming involved in some manner.
In addition to sideshow and performance art, Rod has also been an avid motorcyclist. Sometimes his brother would accompany him and the duo would ride their cycles around rural communities. On one of these trips, they visited Leavenworth to check out the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum and what circus memorabilia may have been stored there. Upon seeing some very aged promotional material for sideshow acts, Rod began to fill in the blanks for a tour guide regarding a particular act that had been advertised on a bright poster hanging on the wall. What began as a brief discussion turned serious, and soon the talk shifted to storage and curation of Rod’s personal collection of circus memorabilia. Much of that memorabilia is now housed and available for public viewing at the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, KS.
I am saddened by the announced closure of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. There is a plethora of identifying and fabulous additions to our storied history that have sprung from the many carnival and circus tour circuits that have wandered our country over the past hundred and fifty years. It has lent its unique flavor to the myriad voices of our culture: Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Tod Browning’s cinema classic Freaks, HBO’s Carnivale, Stephen King’s The Night of the Tiger, to a recent entry, Laird Barron’s Screaming Elk, MT. The list is endless, it goes ever on!
But yes, step right up! Step right up and watch now. Watch as the once highly-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth now performs the Greatest Vanishing Act of them all.
Whatever happens, it’ll be worth watching.
Rod Sipe is a Circus enthusiast, sideshow and performance artist.
He can be found HERE.
For a final glimpse: