MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. -- It is that hour before dawn when shooting stars still tumble dimly across the sky, farm ponds smoke with morning mist, and the acrid smell of skunk floats across dewy fields. All is quiet on this empty stretch of Alabama highway.
Then, groaning and hissing around a curve, comes the vanguard of the Great American Circus, a bit of Americana on the move in a truck convoy of roustabouts, elephants and drowsing clowns headed north for the Tennessee border, where the red lights of a radio tower flash like a homing beacon.
Miles behind the trucks, on the grassy field of the North Alabama State Fairgrounds, the rest of the circus still sleeps in a makeshift trailer village of jugglers, acrobats and animal acts. In a big blue bus are Captain Eddie and Miss Sylven, with their chimps, their birds and their bears. In a nearby trailer, the Human Volcano and his fiancee, La Donna of the flying trapeze, breathe softly on their pillows.
But the truck convoy, toting a rolled-up circus tent on two huge spools, keeps moving toward the next town, the beams of its headlights now fading in the blush of the eastern sky.
It is a throwback, this circus, with its three-ring Big Top and its one-night stands. It packs up and moves every day of every week, March through November, stopping to catch its breath only on Easter Sunday as it plays 20 states east of the Mississippi, with two shows daily in such towns as Jasper and Meridian, Cullman and Fletcher, Hickory and Shelby.
All of which provides a tidy invitation for one to sigh that, thank goodness, some things in America really haven't changed.
But, alas, after the tent is staked and set for the day under a bright blue sky, a funny thing happens that sends such thoughts to oblivion. Not a single kid shows up to nose around the lot. This circus may be true to its past, but much of its audience has run off to an age when satellite dishes spring up like mushrooms on the lawns of rural America.
"At one time on a morning like this, you would have chased 50 or 60 kids away," circus owner Allan C. Hill says, sitting in a lawn chair next to the Big Top. "Nowadays you don't find a kid on the lot to save your soul. . . . TV killed circuses. Fifty years ago, there were probably 100 traveling tent shows. Now you maybe have about a dozen."
When things go wrong
Not that Mr. Hill's circus doesn't turn a profit, and business was particularly good last year in the heart of the recession. But even without a single television set out there, the life of a tent circus would be a weary struggle in which 101 things can go wrong.
Just look at last Tuesday.
First, there was the trip from Columbus, Miss., to Russellville, Ala., a slog of more than 100 miles up rough, twisting roads after a night plagued by tornado warnings. Ringmaster Brian La Palme, who is also the resident fire eater and flame-spewing Human Volcano, rear-ended the trailer of his fiance, Donna Moos, when she slammed on the brakes.
It was either that or drive her trailer onto a narrow bridge with a double-wide mobile home bearing down from the opposite direction. (That at least wasn't as bad as the accident two years ago, when the concession manager's truck burned to a cinder in full view of everybody. He died, but that didn't stop that night's show.)
When the trucks arrived in Russellville, there was more bad news. The promised lot north of the Calvary Baptist Church was on a slope. And had tree stumps. And was a muddy mess. Three trucks were stuck before a new location could be found, which meant that Irene the elephant had to unload and don her big leather harness to yank the trucks free.
Even after the move to a grassy spot up against a patch of woods, the turnout for both shows was small and listless. At the first one a little girl fell through an opening in the bleachers. Her mother scooped her up and ran shrieking from the tent, although the girl turned out to be fine.
"Every day is a different confrontation," Mr. Hill says, sighing as he watches the meager Tuesday crowd trickle into the stands.
"Maybe you're short of drivers; maybe you're short of help. Maybe you don't have the right permits. Maybe the field's too muddy, or too small. Sometimes the town gives you trouble."
$ A rogue on a rampage
Sometimes one of your elephants goes berserk.
That happened last year, when the 7,500-pound Janet Kelly went on a rampage while giving $2 rides to a woman and five children in Florida. She plowed into the bleachers, tossing a trainer and a policeman to the ground, then charged from the tent, injuring six people along the way.
When she turned to run back inside, police opened fire. It took 40 shots to kill her.
Animal rights activists went almost as berserk as Janet Kelly, and a spectator's harrowing videotape of the incident ran on television all over the country (which, of course, made the circus all the more attractive to the TV generation, and attendance soared).