The Greatest Show on Earth returned to Baltimore for the first time in five years yesterday, subtly letting residents know that the circus was back in town by parading elephants down Pratt Street.
The train carrying animals and performers in the 121st edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived behind the 1100 block of W. Pratt St. about noon, and once the evening rush hour had passed, the beasts of Barnum began their march to the Baltimore Arena.
One man jumped up from his dinner table to chase the elephants and zebras as they did a slow stroll past the B&O Railroad Museum.
"I just got the word, my friend told me: 'They got animals coming down Pratt Street,' " said 32-year-old Ronnie Wilson as he ran down the sidewalk with a bowl of "lima beans and neck bones with a biscuit on the side."
Cradling his supper in one hand, Mr. Wilson walked with a smile and bright eyes, a witness to something he hadn't glimpsed for a long time.
"I've been a kid since I seen something like this," he said. "It's lovely."
Baltimore hasn't seen the great spectacle of the Ringling Bros. since 1987, a three-ring void taken up in recent years by the smaller Moscow Circus and Big Apple Circus.
An old show business feud between Abe Pollin, owner of the company which manages the Arena, and the Feld Family, which owns the circus, forced Ringling Bros. out of Baltimore in 1988, the year Mr. Pollin began managing the city-owned civic center.
Business, apparently, was able to dilute bad blood.
"We never wanted to leave in the first place," Mr. Allen J. Bloom said yesterday. "Three years went by and Mr. Pollin called me one day and said he'd like to talk. We got together and worked something out. We have a signed contract, five years for [the circus and an ice show]. Now we'll see if everybody lives up to those agreements."
Mr. Bloom said the contract allows the circus to sell its own tickets at face value -- without the service charge added on for other shows by the Pollin management -- and assures appearances by the circus and Walt Disney's World on Ice in Baltimore annually through 1998.
"For the average Baltimorean it simply means not missing the Greatest Show on Earth," said a spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
This year's show, 21 performances beginning tomorrow and running through through May 10, features a cast from around the globe, including the award-winning European clown David Larible and the Heilonjiang bicycling acrobats from the People's Republic of China.
The players from America include 20-year-old Mark Oliver Gebel, who has taken over the elephant herd of his father, retired circus superstar Gunther Gebel-Williams; and Lisa Dufresne, whose down-home act features a barnyard ensemble of cows, pigs, goats and ducks.
Amid the sidewalk crowds from Mount Clare Junction to the Arena were protesters from the Maryland Forum for Animals, who held a banner that said: "Clowns are Cool. Animal Acts Are Cruel."
"These are wild animals," said group member Patti Cockey after the herd had passed. "They're being held captive for entertainment. Their lifelong misery in captivity is not worth our hour's worth of casual amusement."
Still, the amusement seemed passionate for the little freckle-faced red-head at the corner of Pratt and South Amity Street, a boy cracking sunflower seeds with his teeth as the show passed.
"Dang!" he said.