Baby Boomer Memories: When the 'Greatest Show on Earth' last came to town
It was 70 years ago on June 25, 1949, that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last played the "Greatest Show on Earth" in Pittsfield. It was my first circus, and although I was only 4 years old, I have very vivid memories of it. My mother took me two blocks down William Street to Root playground, now the location of Herberg Middle School. The circus set up in a field at Root and had two shows that drew a total of 16,000 people.
As we got to the playground, I remember the huge tent and all the red circus wagons that I later learned were newly acquired World War II trailers repurposed for the circus. The circus actually traveled by several trains that loaded and unloaded at a track siding on Columbus Avenue. Trucks and tractors brought all the circus equipment and animals to the lot in the red trailers. While walking around the circus lot, we saw clowns and costumed performers readying for the show. For the first time, I got to see elephants, tigers, a terrifying gorilla, giraffes and other exotic animals that were in the menagerie.
My mother bought the 80-page circus program, but I must admit I was more excited by the box of Cracker Jacks with a prize ... that is, until the show began.
It was my first exposure to a three-ring extravaganza with colorful costumes, slapstick clowns, a mother goose parade with floats, a scary high-wire act without a net, wild exotic tigers and bears doing tricks, jugglers, acrobats, performing horses and elephants, and a live band, all narrated by an impressive ringmaster. I was mesmerized, and that day sparked a lifelong interest in circuses.
Although many circuses came to the Berkshires and sometimes several in one summer, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was a special one. It was a merger of three of the largest and most famous circuses. It attributed its start in 1871 when museum showman P.T. Barnum began to operate one of the earliest traveling circuses. Barnum's circus performed in its first year in Williamstown and in 1873 came to Pittsfield. In 1891, Barnum's show merged with its major competitor, the James Bailey Circus.
After both founders had passed away, the Ringling Bros. Circus, founded in 1881, bought the combined enterprise in 1919. Twelve years after the purchase, and operating separate shows, the seven Ringling Brothers merged the circuses to become the "Greatest Show on Earth."
The combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed in Pittsfield frequently over its history and actually played on the Root property in 1942 before the land was owned by the city. In 1952, the circus tried to play again in Pittsfield, but a suitable location wasn't approved by city leaders. The circus also was turned down for locations in Hancock and Lenox.
Thus, the 1949 show was the circus' last visit to the Berkshires. In 1956, the circus discontinued all tent performances and only began playing in indoor arenas in major U.S. cities. These performances continued for the next 61 years until 2017. In its 146th anniversary year, the "Greatest Show on Earth" ended its run.
Under pressure from animal rights advocates, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus discontinued its famous elephant act and then eliminated its wild cat shows before shutting down. Traditional circuses with animals could not compete with newer circuses such as Cirque du Soleil. These enterprises came up with fantasy stories, New Age music and artistic performances combined with traditional circus acts, but without multi-rings and the presence of animals.
Times have changed, and the exotic animals needed better treatment and more space, as zoos have learned. But when I was 4, nothing could beat the circus animals, the hoopla, pageantry, acrobats, music and treats of the "Greatest Show on Earth" in 1949, and right here in the Berkshires.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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