News of the final performance of the Biggest Show on Earth in New York on May 21 tells us once more that entertainment, and how we receive it, is part of the ever-changing culture we experience thanks to advancing technology. The focus of coverage on the demise of the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus, a part of American history for something like 146 years, was on the circus’s running battle with animal rights groups. But of larger significance was that this indelible part of our experience was also a victim of declining attendance as more people find options for diversion within their homes and workplaces.
Like river showboats whose traveling productions offered amusement to thousands of people living near the nation’s waterways, the circus enjoyed a long life due to fascination with nature, magic and spectacle. Ringling Bros. made Charleston, W.Va., a regular stop for decades and it was there in April 2001 my wife and I reacquainted ourselves with the charm and glamour provided by the Big Top, even if there was no real canvas enclosure within the confines of the Civic Center. The memory became even more poignant when Charleston again hosted one of the last shows earlier in May.
The endurance of the circus is not surprising because some forms of American entertainment lingered long after they had supposedly been replaced by newer outlets like radio and television, as Betty Bryant pointed out about the particular venue she intimately knew in her memoir “Here Comes the Showboat!” (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1994): “The showboat was originally intended for the hinterland, and the smaller ones, like ours, would continue for many more years, floating along at a leisurely pace totally out of tempo with the rest of the world.”
Today we must recognize that with access to TV shows, music, news and social media crammed into a cell phone with all of the right applications, immediate gratification has been achieved. No longer do you have to wait for the circus, river playhouse or certain movie you want to see come to your hometown theater. Doesn’t matter where you live, if you’ve got all the online stuff going for you, all of that wonderment is at your fingertips.
This is nothing new as the web has made all of these transformations old hat within the first two decades of the new century. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All of these conveniences have cleared roadblocks to enjoyment of new and old films and TV shows not yet available on DVD, quick reference to needed information and occasional trips down memory lane with the variety of music made available to all and sundry. That concept of “my music” becomes even easier to achieve.
For some of us, our music includes pop tunes of the 1950s and ’60s that, a few decades later prompted local fans to clear our Thursday nights to zero in to a certain Athens, Ohio, radio station and listen to the Boss Groover spin classics along with shameless plugs he made for the sub shop he owned, The Hole in the Wall. (Any Ohio University alums of the late ’70s and early ’80s remember it?) Yes, the Internet makes all of that possible. The music, I mean, not the Boss’s fondly-recalled commentary that peppered his weekly playlist. (Fans of the Boss, a.k.a. Ed Deutch, will be pleased to know he still operates a well-regarded DJ service out of Athens. I learned that bit of information through the miracle of Google, too. But I digress.)
Yet to some extent, the ease of access to entertainment has replaced the shared experience of absorbing and appreciating plays, concerts, pageants and even lectures. Sure, you can distribute your thoughts and videos of such events to your friends, but that’s not quite the same as being there to enjoy and be part of such summertime activities as those staged in Pomeroy by its Blues and Jazz Society, the river-themed celebrations offered by Gallipolis and Point Pleasant, or even the smaller venues like McCoy’s One-Stop in Vinton and Woodside Stage LLC near Cadmus that perk up weekend evenings with live entertainment.
Others may be satisfied with the more solitary form of expression, and that’s fine. But one suspects there will always be a need for public events such as ball games, shows, musical gatherings, outdoor festivals — and circuses, which despite the disappearance of the Ringling Bros. brand, have not all yet had their day.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.