Step right up. "The Greatest Show on Earth" has come to town. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has officially taken over the 1st Mariner Arena, now through March 21.
This year's show, the 133rd edition of P.T. Barnum's spectacle, features the usual cast of circus characters - elephants, tigers, clowns, jugglers, acrobats, aerialists and stilt-walkers - as well as some other familiar faces, new stars and new death-defying acts.
"It's probably the most thrilling show that Feld Entertainment has put together," says Melinda Rosser, spokeswoman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. "All the acts are different. There are still animals, dancers, clowns and trapeze acts, but everything has been stepped up a bit. There's even a touch of Moulin Rouge. The costumes are a little edgier. We have a fresh look."
Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson returns as host for the shows, introducing the performers and directing attention to various exciting happenings.
Animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel, son of famed animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, returns with a new act.
This year, Gebel's 10 Bengal tigers are miked, allowing audience members to hear the vocal exchange and interplay between trainer and tiger.
Gebel, too, choreographs a three-ring elephant performance. "Gebel talks in `elephantese' to them, and they all sit up," Rosser says. "He says something else, and they all lay down."
Wacky, daredevil clown Bello is back, performing trampoline, bungee and high-wire feats and, of course, bungling into other performers' acts.
Named America's best clown by Time magazine in 2001, Bello is a master at the challenging and daring circus ventures, while a bit dimwitted with, say, tying his shoes or chewing gum.
As for other daredevils, the Torres Brothers of Paraguay will attempt to steer five motorcycles in the confines of a 16-foot steel sphere, "The Globe of Death." They will zip around inside the sphere at speeds of up to 65 mph, just inches from one another.
Aerial acrobats the Sky Surfers take to the sky with their high-flying trapeze act: tumbling, triple-somersaulting and soaring through the air - sometimes as far as the length of the arena floor.
The clowns in Clown Alley will get just a wee bit messy this go-round. After big, bad lunch lady Esther scolds the unruly clowns in their cafeteria lunchroom, the clowns burst into a cream pie-throwing fiasco.
Brand-new this year is the fiery Bailey's Comet, an act that's meant to replicate the brilliant sky show created by Halley's comet.
"Bailey's Comet is a phenomenon that happens only at `The Greatest Show on Earth,' " says Rosser, who's keeping things a little mysterious. "It's the exclamation point at the circus."
The flaming comet (which looks curiously like a human being) is ejected from a "delivery system" across the arena, flying through the air as far as 110 feet and up to 65 mph, trailing a blaze in its wake.
"It's fascinating. It still amazes me," says Rosser. "You can feel the heat from the comet probably 30 rows up."
This year, as in years past, the circus offers a "Three Ring Adventure" for visitors an hour before each show begins. This year's country-and-western-themed adventure includes lessons on performing fancy rope tricks, as well as a chance for visitors to try on clown costumes, take part in a table-and-chair-sliding act, win elephant paintings, try hat-juggling, blow giant bubbles, meet the performers and more.
Also, the Chinese Acrobats of Hebei will perform unique balancing and juggling acts with 18-foot decorated poles. All ticket holders are invited to the "Three Ring Adventure."
This Wednesday, there will be a "Lunch with the Elephants" at Lexington Market. About 14 elephants and five clowns from the circus will parade from the arena to Lexington Market's south parking lot, 400 W. Lexington St., at 11 a.m. Lunch of 1,100 oranges, 1,000 apples, 700 bananas, 500 heads of lettuce, 500 carrots and 400 pears will be served to the elephants at noon.
"The circus is in its 133rd year. We're a year older than baseball," Rosser says. "Because of that, it's a great American tradition. You can go and escape reality for a couple hours. It allows everyone from 2 to 92 to revert back to their childhood. We've got something for everyone. And we put so much into making this a production."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus takes place now through March 21 at the 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Performance times vary. Tickets: $12-$35. Call 410-481-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com. "Lunch with the Elephants" at Lexington Market Wednesday is free. Call 410-685-6169 for details.
For more family events, see Page 41.
The expressions "rain or shine," "throw your hat into the ring," "main event" and "hold your horses" were all born under the big top.
Calliopes were invented in Massachusetts and acted as pied pipers, leading townspeople to the shows.
Elephants have four teeth, each weighing 12 pounds. Also, elephants are naturally near-sighted.
Wearing green, whistling in the dressing room, eating peanuts and setting shoes on a table are considered bad luck.
Clowns are known as "joeys" in honor of famous clown Joseph Grimaldi.
The first circus was in Philadelphia, April 3, 1793. It was a simple one-ring equestrian and clown show, presented by John Bill Ricketts.
Clyde Beatty, featured performer with Ringling Bros. in the late 1920s and early 1930s, once performed with 40 lions and tigers in the same cage at once.
Ringling Bros. first traveled by train in 1890. The tradition continues, and today Ringling Bros. owns two of the largest privately owned trains in the United States, each more than 50 cars long.
-- Feld Entertainment