Send in the clowns ... and the lions and tigers and elephants


TC Celebrating what may -- or may not -- be the 200th anniversary of the circus in America, the Greatest Show on Earth will ride the rails into town next week with a cast of new acts and old favorites for a return engagement at the Baltimore Arena.

The 122nd edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opening here Wednesday night features (so they say) "talent from the four corners of the globe" -- listing in a press release Mongolia, the People's Republic of China, Moscow and the Philippines.

And without questioning the concept of a globe with corners, much less those four corners, or the show's claim that its troupe of 40 Mongolian horseback daredevils, acrobats and folk dancers is the first from their country to appear in the Western Hemisphere, the lineup looks dazzling.

But you don't get a circus these days without a little hype. This is, after all, the circus that passed off a one-horned goat as "The Living Unicorn," and renamed an uncommonly large pachyderm "King Tusk, the Largest Land Mammal Traveling the Face of the Earth." (A circus authority reports that King Tusk's name was just-plain "Tommy" before the 1987 Ringling tour.)

So what about this 200th anniversary stuff?

According to John Culhane, author of "The American Circus: An Illustrated History," the circus really can be traced back nearly 208 years, to a show put on in Philadelphia Aug. 27, 1785, by native-born American Thomas Pool that interspersed stunt riding and clown comedy.

But Pool, after a performance accident, apparently turned his interests to a Boston riding school and vanished from circus history after 1786.

The idea was revived and expanded by a Scotsman, John Bill Ricketts, who on April 3, 1793, staged a show in Philadelphia, then the nation's capital, that combined the riding and clowning with acrobatics and rope-walking, Mr. Culhane writes.

Ricketts called his show a circus -- first used a few years earlier in England, from the Latin word for ring -- and attracted to his audience on April 22 no less a dignitary than President George Washington.

The visit by Washington, Mr. Culhane says, "established the circus in America with a presidential seal of approval."

Ricketts, who took his one-ring circus on a wagon tour from Baltimore to Boston, later bought Washington's famous white horse, Jack, and invented the sideshow.

Ringling Bros., in its 200th anniversary promotion, cites the Philadelphia show of April 3, 1793, as Circus Day No. 1 in America.

"I thought, when I saw they were announcing the 200th anniversary of the circus, that anyone would know the circus is seven or eight years [older]," Mr. Culhane said in an interview this week. "But I don't want to rain on anybody's parade. . . . Once the president of the United States came, and gave or sold Jack, the horse he rode in the American Revolution, to the circus, then the circus is a big deal. And that's what they're celebrating."

One might think that on April 3, the Ringling Bros. folks would rather be in Philadelphia -- but they'll be right here in Baltimore. While the show's script is not built around a 200th anniversary theme (which promoters say may be in the cards for next year), it would be a good day to sit by the center ring and let the magic of a circus take hold.

(Curiously, the show's next stop is Washington, from April 6 to 19 -- and it will be packed up and gone by the April 22 anniversary of Washington's visit. But you can bet the promoters will be hoping for a visit by the Clinton clan.)

No doubt, George Washington would have been there -- a rider himself -- to see such acts as Ringling's Mongolian horsemen, though the idea of a place called Mongolia would be far more exotic to him than to circus fans of the 20th century.

What the nation's founding father would readily recognize is the circus ring -- little changed from its invention by Englishman Philip Astley in 1768. The wonder of the circus ring is how its size, largely standardized at 42 feet in diameter, helps a rider maintain balance while standing atop a cantering horse through centrifugal force.

On the other hand, Washington would have a tough time with the show's Ninja warriors -- some of them teen-age, although none of them particularly resembles a turtle.

And what would he make of the glitter, the booming rock music, or tiger-tamer Wade Burck from North Dakota, of contortionists and balancing acts, or acrobats and elephants in constant motion in not one, but three rings of simultaneous activity?

The circus, 200 years after his first visit, has evolved into an entertainment that bombards, sometimes overpowers, the senses. Perhaps it can even batter the mind into a state of disbelief.

Until the advent of radio in the 1920s and the popularization of motion pictures, the circus was America's most popular form of entertainment, Mr. Culhane says, noting that some trapeze artists were superstars. Now, there is television.

The late Irvin Feld, the Hagerstown-born impresario and Ringling Bros. owner credited with saving the circus after helping move it from tents into modern arenas, once lamented that many children raised in the glare of TV screens seemed to have a hard time believing that the dangers in the acts of wire walkers, sway-pole riders and tiger tamers were sit-on-the-edge-of-the-seat real.

Watching a British animal trainer induce growls from a ring of panthers, Feld insisted to a guest, "This guy is crazy. He's going to get eaten some day." (For the record, he didn't.)

Feld died in 1984, leaving the two Ringling shows that crisscross the nation in the hands of his son, Kenneth.

The younger Feld, in celebrating the 200th anniversary (or maybe the 208th), wants to pass on some of the joy of the circus by offering a free ticket to any child born in 1993.

For a gift certificate that may be redeemed for one ticket at any time during the lifetime of the child, send the parent's name and address, and the child's name and date of birth, to: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, P.O. Box 5265, Clifton, N.J. 07015.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

When: Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; March 26 at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; March 27 at noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; March 28 at 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.; March 30 at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; March 31, April 1 and April 2 at 7:30 p.m.; April 3 at noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; April 4 at noon, 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Admission: $8.50, $11.50 and $14.50.

Call: (410) 962-8008 for more information and to charge by phone; (410) 347-2006 for group rates; (410) 727-7811 for accessible seating.

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