Roars of rhinoceros and clopping of camels echo in empty circus seats in Clifton Park

September 15, 1990|By David Michael Ettlin

It is not easy to hide a 60,000-square-foot tent with bold red and white stripes, and a traveling menagerie that includes a rhino and 23 elephants. But the five-ring Carson & Barnes Circus managed to remain one of Baltimore's best-kept secrets yesterday.

The show set up housekeeping Wednesday in the middle of Clifton Park, and it began playing to less-than-standing-room crowds -- 30 the first afternoon, 65 yesterday afternoon and 180 last night.

"This is the worst it's ever been since I've been in show business," said D.R. Miller, the 74-year-old owner who founded the show with his late brother and father more than a half-century ago. "It wasn't advertised properly."

Dressed in sport coat and tie and sitting in an aluminum lawn chair inside the Big Top's entrance, Mr. Miller noted that even in small towns, hundreds of people would turn out to watch the elephants and circus hands put up the 3,000-seat tent.

In Baltimore?

"We didn't have nobody," he said.

Mr. Miller said the prices initially advertised for the show were too high. They were reduced yesterday to $9 for adults and $7 for children under age 11.

Watching the show's finale -- three trapeze troupes performing simultaneously over the middle and end rings -- Mr. Miller recalled his own performing days. "I was a tightwire walker, trapeze -- I did elephants. What I like to do is train horses, but I like elephants better as animals. They're smarter."

He was not the only person sitting in the tent with circus memories.

"I loved it," said Jack Sofield, 42, who brought 4-year-old son David to the show. "We enjoyed it more than the big circus -- particularly since we don't get it in the Civic Center anymore," he said, referring to the decision by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to eliminate Baltimore from its schedule after the downtown arena was turned over to private management.

"I remember going to a circus like this when I was a child," Mr. Sofield said, holding young David by the hand as they stood near the animal cages fashioned from tractor-trailer rigs and holding lions, tigers, a pygmy hippo, wallabies, a sleeping rhinoceros and an 11-month-old giraffe.

"I have to temper it and tell him this is not the best way to keep animals," Mr. Sofield said of the small metal-bar cages. "But it was something for him to see."

Gene Geiger of Middle River also had memories of a tent show -- when the Ringling circus played under the Big Top near the intersection of Edmondson Avenue and Bentalou Street.

"I used to hang around, work around them, when they were in town" the 75-year-old Mr. Geiger recalled, "more than 50 years ago."

Mr. Geiger saw the show yesterday with his wife, daughter, "granddaughter-in-law" and two great-grandchildren -- and together they made up close to 10 percent of the audience.

The Carson & Barnes show has a smaller cast of performers than the Ringling show and runs about an hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. It has less spectacle and pageantry than the indoor Ringling show, but in the confines of the long tent there seemed to be a greater sense of intimacy, spectators noted yesterday.

The audience was spread out with plenty of elbow room in the center section of the tent -- so far removed from the end ring where the Padilla trapeze troupe from Mexico was performing that their graceful flying pass went virtually unnoticed.

Mr. Sofield termed the size of the crowd "an embarrassment" for Baltimore.

Mr. Miller, the owner, was simply hoping that the weekend performances -- at 1:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. today and at 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. tomorrow -- would see a better turnout.

Some people were already arriving for the night performance -- walking past the cages with their children, admiring the 20 Asian and three African elephants, the llamas and the camels, one-humped and two.

John Tudor, 41, who works as a plumber at Johns Hopkins Hospital, also was waiting with his son Shaun, 7, for the first of the evening's elephant rides -- a chance to sit atop a 40-year-old Asian pachyderm named Suzy for a mere $2.

"If it was $5, I'd pay it," Mr. Tudor said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

"What if it was $20?" Shaun asked, with perhaps a little skepticism.

"I'd have to think about it," Mr. Tudor conceded.

Some proceeds from the show's 16-day tour of Maryland, including the appearances in Clifton Park and a $100-a-person "circus gala" held Thursday night, were to benefit the Mental Health Association of Maryland.

After leaving Baltimore, the circus has scheduled performances Monday in Fair Hill, Tuesday in Worton, Wednesday in Cambridge, Thursday and Friday in Crownsville, Saturday in Upper Marlboro and next Sunday at the international raceway at Budds Creek in St. Mary's County.

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