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The Big Top Circus Lives and Dies

The movie "The Greatest Showman" was a marvelous tribute to a bygone era.

By Bonnie and Bill Neely

The movie “The Greatest Showman” was a marvelous tribute to a bygone era. Some 146 years of the thrill of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus tours ended in 2017 with the final performance in May in Uniondale, New York, at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The elephant performances had ended because training them was considered inhumane. Although around 10 million people went to a Ringling circus each year, it was no longer enough to make the traveling show profitable.
Carson & Barnes Circus in Hugo, Oklahoma, is the last of the touring big-tent, three-ring circuses left. The show winters in Hugo and then goes on the road to take the show around the country — not an easy task. It requires a large cookhouse trailer fully equipped to serve the many performers and their families. Schoolchildren must be tutored for part of the tour, and families usually travel in RVs.
Performers train, practice their acts and create new ones all winter in this small town. The circus people are a welcome part of the community, and when the show goes on the road for half a year the locals always miss them. But in Paris, Texas, families enjoy the grand opening days of the circus in March, often during spring break with many free and discounted tickets available.
One of the most popular things for groups to see is the erecting of the big top and setting up of the circus, with animals in their traveling coaches outside the fairgrounds. It takes many experienced people to set the ropes just right and pull to make the red-and-white-striped tent arise into place, and then each rope and wire must be safely secured and expertly checked. Often unpredictable weather — including high winds — occur in Paris in the spring, so the tent must be extra strong and well-grounded for safety.
Beyond the show itself are midway games and the traditional snacks of soft drinks, popcorn, peanuts, candy and cotton candy as well as balloons and other trinkets to take home. But the circus struggles today to compete with electronic media and live performances, so catching a show before it, too, disappears into history could make for the perfect family holiday.
As long as you’re in this area of northeast Texas or southeast Oklahoma, be sure to visit the Circus Cemetery in Hugo. It is worth an hour to walk through and see the fascinating circus tombstones. Many have a picture and tribute to the performer buried there. And when the circus is not traveling, you can drive by their farm headquarters just outside of town, where you can see the large barns, many animal food supplies, trainers practicing and caring for their animals, and other daily activities necessary to keep the circus the greatest show on earth.

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