Circus shows took place under canvas Finale: The last time the Big Top was raised in Baltimore was May 22, 1956, in Herring Run Park.

Remember When

March 22, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gives its final performance today at the Baltimore Arena, the "Greatest Show on Earth" will simply pack up its animals, performers, props and costumes, head for the 53-car circus train parked at a railroad siding near Lansdowne and travel to its next engagement.

Up until 1956, when the show still performed outdoors under a canvas tent, it wasn't so easy. The "Big Top" measured 76,000 square yards. It weighed 18 tons when dry and three times that when wet.

For years, Baltimore circus fans gathered at the old lots -- Bentalou Street, Pimlico, East Monument Street, Lawrence Park and, finally, Herring Run Park -- to sit under the famed Big Top to hear the lions roar, watch the clowns frolic and the trapeze artists fly.

Before dawn May 22, 1956, three trains, totaling 80 cars, chugged into a Pennsylvania Railroad siding on North Haven Street, the closest one to Herring Run Park and Pulaski Highway, where an army of workers began unloading red and green vans, tractors and other equipment.

Roustabouts cranked up stake-driving machines, while the blue tent was unfolded and spread out on the ground.

"Tractors hauled up tent poles. Men wrestled with canvas for the sideshow tent, driving its stakes by hand. The boss canvas man bellowed, 'Rock, muss, buss, shape, break, run along!' The roustabouts chanted as they yanked up the canvas. Soon the tent was up, soon the tangle of ropes was secured," reported The Sunday Sun Magazine. "In a couple of hours more the first audience began to arrive. There were two performances that day and two the next."

The flap of canvas

"Canvas flapped gently, a generator purred and tired roustabouts gossiped in low tones and snored lazily. But the lull would not last," reported The Evening Sun. "Today the roar of lions will drown out yesterday's squeaking of field mice. Blasting band music will obliterate the generator's drone. Whips will crack, elephants will trumpet, crowds will roar. In a frenzied hoopla, the circus has come to town."

Despite the wind, rain and heat -- circus tradition claimed it always rained when they played Baltimore -- the show went on before an audience of 9,856.

The Sun reported that "there were enough of the other things -- clowns, barkers and, what's more, 'rock 'n roll elephants' -- to make its gala opening yesterday the usual jaw-dropping

success."

The sideshow featured Glenn Pulley, the "Thin Man," who weighed 62 pounds; Ella Mills, the 586-pound "Fat Lady" from Wisconsin; and Harry Doll, the 30-inch, 38-pound 44-year-old who was known as the "world's smallest man."

For those interested in reptiles, Senorita Josephine, the "Snake Charmer" from Mexico, entertained the crowd with her three boas and two pythons.

A "fire-worshiper" lighted the flame that roared from his mouth with an acetylene torch. A "Human Corkscrew"; a tattooed lady, known as the "living art gallery"; and the "Leopard Girl from Madagascar" competed for attention.

"The barker outside the sideshow cried, of the thin man, 'If he swallowed a bottle of cherry pop he'd look like a thermometer,' and, of the fat lady, 'If you wanted to hug her it would take four men to do the job,' " said the newspaper.

"Even the aerialists and acrobats participated in the parade. They were drawn around on chariots by teams of horses, and if appearance counts for anything these modern-day performers rank highly with those of old, even if they have no handlebar mustaches."

What the audience attending the circus then didn't know was that its 1956 visit to Baltimore would be its last here under canvas. On July 17, when the show ended its stand in Pittsburgh, the great tent was pulled down for the last time.

John Ringling North, board chairman and president of the circus, abruptly announced the closing of the 1956 season:

"The tented circus as it now exists is, in my opinion, a thing of the past. We are considering plans for the future which may involve an almost completely mechanically controlled exhibition."

North said that labor troubles, bad weather, rising costs and other factors that cut into attendance -- such as television -- put an end to the tent show. Earlier that year, two other circuses, Clyde Beatty and King Brothers, folded their tents.

An Evening Sun editorial lamented the passing of an era:

"Almost everyone who hears this news will be saddened by it, each for his own reasons, based on particular childhood memories. Some will best recall the animals, some the clowns, some the Wild West performance, some the side-shows, some the taste of cotton candy or the smell of camels, some the band, some the aerial gods and goddesses of the trapeze."

"The tent had to go some time, and now it has gone," said a Sun editorial. "Plans are afoot for a new kind of show, to play only in air-conditioned arenas. It will probably be a good show, but the pennanted tent, with its heat and dust and tanbark, was half of what made a proper circus. Progress is grand, no doubt about that. Its price is heavy."

The 1957 season featured the Ringling circus playing in the open air at Memorial Stadium. After the Civic Center opened in the early 1960s, it moved indoors, where it has drawn crowds ever since.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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