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The Scrivener: Spangles And Sawdust - Part Six

“I think it is important always to take a child, or some children, to the circus. The expressions on their faces, and their chatter on the way home, are indications of how good the show was.’’

Brian Barratt, a man with a life-long enthusiasm for the glamour, glitter and razzle-dazzle of circuses, brings you the next best thing to sitting in a tiered seat in a Big Top.

For lots more fun with words visit Brian's Web site www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

ONE, TWO OR THREE RINGS?

Unfortunately, I didn’t collect programmes or other memorabilia of tenting circuses in Australia apart from the Sole Bros souvenir programme for their Trans-Continental Tour 1969–1970 and the Royale American 3-Ring Circus, Official Souvenir Magazine, 1986.

The Sole Bros show was different from previous shows I had seen — the wild animal act came at the end, just before the Grand Finale, The Flying Ronaldos. It was more usual to commence with wild animals, and to have clowns or other fill-in acts taking place while the cage was being dismantled.

I went to the old Ashtons Circus on a number of occasions, and seem to remember one year a combined Ashton-Circus Royale appearance at the Burnley Circus Ground in MeIbourne. Certainly there was one show that boasted two flying trapeze acts. Last time I saw Ashtons, at a local shopping centre, it seemed to have the slightly tatty appearance that older tenting shows acquire as the years go by.

Since I compiled the original version of these notes, the old Ashton circus has changed ownership within the family. I believe one of two new tenting shows is now called Ashton Brothers.

The Ashton clowns didn’t impress me but my small companion on that occasion was greatly impressed. Is the quality of clowning dropping off, or am I getting old and staid? I think it is important always to take a child, or some children, to the circus. The expressions on their faces, and their chatter on the way home, are indications of how good the show was.

I once collected eight children from three families, and took them to Wilkies in Kitwe. They were all dressed up in their best clothes, hair neatly arranged, for it was quite an ‘outing’. They were very ‘good’ before and during the show, and on the drive home. Then we had a circus of our own in the sitting room, with eight budding acrobats, lion tamers, clowns, trapeze artistes, making as much noise and commotion as they could. That was a measure of the success of Wilkies!

In Melbourne, I went with a grown-up friend to the Royale American 3-Ring Circus, which I think was based in Queensland. We should have had some children with us because our first impressions gave way to a feeling of dissatisfaction as the show progressed. Certainly, it was new to see a real three-ring Big Top, and lots of good costumes, on a clean, well organised tober.

Sole Bros once had a two-ring tent, but Royale was the first real three-ring I had seen. However, to compete with the influence of television, we had commercial breaks, advertisements, give-aways, and a running commentary by a ring-master telling us what we were seeing.

The acts were certainly of high standard — one youngish man was skilful in balancing, horse training, trapeze and other turns. The Gomez Family were pretty good in foot juggling and, later, their two small children did an admirable rag-doll routine. We felt that if all the acts had appeared in one ring with less delay between, and a great deal less talking by the ringmaster, it would have been an excellent show instead of merely a good one. Or... should we have asked some children what they thought?

Incidentally, although the three-ring circus is generally associated with Phineas T. Barnum, it was tried by Lord George Sanger as early as 1860 but discontinued. Some American circuses, in the heyday of the Big Top, had no less than five rings. It's difficult enough seeing what's going on in three, let alone five!

One ring is quite enough, as Cirque de Soleil has shown in recent years. But that’s a different story.

© Copyright 2005 Brian Barratt

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