From "Ringling Bros and Barnum & Baily Circus Magazine and Daily Review" 1939



By William Lyon Phelps


HEAVEN lay about me in my infancy, and it tools a circular shape. From the moment I entered the great tent until I emerged some hours later I was in Paradise. It was no illusion, no imaginary pleasure. It was authentic bliss, a delirium of delight. And now that I am over 70 I find I still love the circus. I do not go today for the pleasure of reminiscence, to see if I can recapture my childish enthusiasm; I go because the circus draws me, because I want to go.


I have always loved the circus. When I was a child, although my father and mother did not allow me to attend the theatre, they heartily approved of the circus and I remember seeing repeatedly not only Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth, but Barnum himself. During a pause in the circus performance, P. T. Barnum, dressed in formal black clothes and looking like a clergyman, was introduced to the audience as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind, which I do not think was an exaggeration. He was broad and fat and unctuous and in the language of Dickens, he seemed to be "one vast substantial mile." I wish I could remember what he said, but I was so fascinated by looking at the author and creator of happiness that I do not recall a single word of his brief address.


Barnum was the Shakespeare of advertisers, and has never keen surpassed. His knowledge of what the public wanted was infallible. He knew they loved to be swindled, so long as the swindle was understood to be a glorious joke on both sides. At one of his circuses he had a big sign just inside the main tent


Hundreds of people followed that thinking they were on the way to some African monstrosity, but soon they found they were outdoors and had to pay fifty cents to get back. Instead of being wild with rage, they were delighted and when the word was explained to them they said, "Isn't that just like Barnum !"


On another occasion in New Haven one of the side shows, to which I believe an admission of twenty-five cents was charged, announced


A CHERRY COLORED CAT Now people supposed that a cherry colored cat was unique; they trooped in there by the hundreds and all they saw was a perfectly ordinary black cat. When they had looked at this and demanded an explanation, the attendant said "Well, you know some cherries are black." And then what happened was exactly what Barnum had foreseen. Instead of being angry, the crowd looked at each other with a foolish grin, exclaimed "Sold again !" Then they went back into the main tent and told every stranger "Have you seen the cherry colored cat? It is the most marvelous exhibition ever given." So that each person who had been deceived got five other persons to swell the coffers of the management.


In this particular instance I not only remember the occasion but I had a personal acquaintance with the cat. The cat lived at the corner of Chapel and York Streets in New Haven in a large house belonging to Mrs. Sanford. I had often stroked and petted this cat. Two or three days before Barnum's circus came to town the cat disappeared. The day after the circus had left, the cat returned to the house with a ribbon and card on which was inscribed "Mr. Barnum's compliments."


Times have changed since then but the circus remains in all its splendor and magnificence. I remember when I was a child the three hours from two o'clock until five o'clock in the afternoon in the big tent were to me absolutely undiluted bliss. I was in an ecstasy of enjoyment. It is certain that if I am fortunate enough to enter the real and eternal Paradise, nothing in Heaven will give me more superlative, immaculate joy than those three hours in the circus.


After I grew up, while I put away many childish things, I did not put away the circus. I know there are many people who never attend the circus after they grow up, and there are others who go merely to take their children. Now while I have often taken children to the circus in later years, I do not take them merely so that I may see the circus through their eyes or enjoy it through their minds. I go to the circus because I want to, because I love it and always will love it. I like everything about the circus-the international smell, the peanuts, the pink lemonade, the sawdust, the animals, and the amazing gymnastic feats are as thrilling to me as ever.


There is a certain so-called disillusion element in the circus which is, I believe, a fallacy. When we are children we envy all the acrobats and performers; we think they must lead the most wonderful lives; they are our heroes and heroines; they are our idols, and then when we grow up we are told that their lives are really very unhappy, very miserable, and that they are not really to be envied at all. Now this statement, so constantly repeated by older people to children, is not true. It is the exact opposite of true. The performers in the circus enjoy their work enormously; they would not have any other profession or occupation for anything in the world. Their loyalty to their profession and their interest in the circus are so great that when one of the acrobats becomes disabled through an accident, he always hopes that he may be given a job as a ticket taker, or that he may be retained in some capacity so that he may spend all the rest of his life in association with the circus. Thus, our pessimistic friends who attempt to disillusionize childhood, are themselves completely mistaken.


The circus is one of the greatest institutions in the whole world. It makes an enormous contribution to human happiness. I congratulate John Ringling North, its executive head; Henry Ringling North, his brother, and the other members of the Ringling family who are now carrying on the great tradition in a way fully worthy of all the advances made in modern times.