From Harford Road, the sight of the Carson & Barnes 60,000-square-foot, red and white striped circus tent rising from a long green slope in Clifton Park stirs heart-in-your-throat memories and a longing for popcorn.
Up close, roustabouts brush off elephants with names like Opal and Marge. Clowns loiter and a trapeze artist strolls across the grounds in her robe over a glittering costume. It seems as if time has halted, and that quintessential circus boy, Toby Tyler, is just around the corner.
Carson & Barnes is one of those circuses that evoke a kinder, more traditional nation. Traveling in 80 semis, the five-ring show rolls into each new city around dawn. Elephants help hoist the tent. A crusty old veteran named D.R. Miller and his wife Isla run the show from headquarters in Hugo, Okla. This year, Carson & Barnes will visit 240 communities, from New Mexico to Maryland.
As of yesterday's afternoon performance, few Baltimoreans were to Carson & Barnes' retro charms. Perhaps 30 people attended the opening show, making for a surreal performance in which the aerialists, clowns, trainers and jugglers far outnumbered their audience.
Just the same, it was a dandy show, though a bit sluggish and canned for want of a cheering, whistling crowd to generate the requisite excitement. But archers, aerialists, wire walkers, tumblers and those who balance on the towering perch poles can't cut corners, no matter how few are watching. And the clowns, animal trainer and other performers played graciously to those who were there.
Emceed by a handsome ringmaster, the show began with stunning sky sculptures called aerial cradles performed by aerialists in four rings. They were followed by agile wire walkers with exquisite balance.
Patricia White, the animal trainer, worked wonders with her lions and tigers. Of the four troupes of perch pole artists, the Rosales Troupe astounded particularly with their double perch poll balancing act, in which one man balanced a man and woman, both perched on poles above him, high above the ring.
A promenade of pirates, sea maidens, elephants, camels and clowns culminated in the shimmering Miss Martha, who dangled from a sky hook by her hair. There were the prancing Liberty
Horses, trampoline feats, tumbling, juggling, kooky clowns playing cops and robbers, super bareback riding, a scary crossbow display, high wire tension and the "mighty mid-air mastery" of two flying trapeze acts which both nailed their triple somersaults.
Adeline Barillas, a 10-year-old Baltimorean, liked the trapeze artists the best. "Because of their costumes," she explained.
So come to Clifton Park. The circus is in town.