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Ringling without the rings

January 11, 2006

THE THREE-RING CIRCUS -- we're talking Ringling Bros., not Washington -- has been around for more than a century. Yet (seen for the first time in circus history!) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus did away with its rings in the show that debuted last week, opting instead for a full-floor event pulled together with a unifying story. Any resemblance to the story-themed, ringless Cirque du Soleil is coincidental, Ringling operators insist, even if the glossy Cirque du Soleil has pulled off the (stupendous! amazing!) trick of making a hefty portion of glitzy Ringling's market share disappear.

Traditionalists may mourn, but even the word "tradition" seems odd for a medium as blissfully tacky as the circus. Sure, "three-ring circus" is so familiar it's become a catchphrase, but the same is true of "sideshow," which disappeared in the 1970s. How many people under the age of 35 know what that word originally meant, or would believe that people with physical abnormalities were once put on display for entertainment?

So let the rings fade, and while RB and B&B is at it, there are a few other circus acts we'd like to see go the way of the bearded lady

* Does anyone really love clowns, with their horrible painted grimaces, mask-like whiteface and unamusing pratfalls? Young children, their target audience, sensibly shrink from them in fear. Anyone who really wants to see wild, stick-out-straight orange hair can check out the local high school campus.

* No matter how much Ringling tries to make like a conservation society, with its elephant breeding program, a life on the road in tight quarters isn't kind to elephants. Their appearance in circuses made more sense when this was the only chance audiences had to see them -- and when less was known about the animals' needs. But modern travel has put just about everyone within reach of a decent zoo.

* Back when lions and tigers were widely viewed as evil, man-eating creatures, audiences saw lion tamers as symbolic gladiators, assuring humanity that we would prevail over the wild. Now we know the wild has more to fear from us than the other way around. Herding housecats and getting them to cheerfully eat kibble or deposit their mouse catch a discreet distance from the front door -- now that would be an astounding feat.

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