American Circus

My brother ran away and joined the circus.  He was a clown. Of course, my brother needed no training to become a clown. He started that way.

It was 1993, and the Clyde-Beatty Cole Bros. Circus was one of the last great tented circuses traveling across America.  Starting in DeLand, Florida, each spring, the show worked its way up to New Hampshire then back down to Florida right before Thanksgiving.  It was two shows a day, three shows on Saturday, from March to November without a day off.  Ringling Brothers had long since abandoned tents for arenas.  Clyde-Beatty Cole Bros. still set up their enormous tent in each new town, using the elephants to pull the tent poles into position and to pull up the stakes each time the show decamped. 

That summer, almost 25 years ago, I had the extraordinary experience of spending a month on the show: The Jersey Shore, Cape Cod, Upstate New York, Northern Virginia, a field in North Georgia.  Embraced as a member of the community, I had unfettered access to document this richly American experience: the tent-raising, the classed society of workers and performers, the three rings of orchestrated chaos, the incredible level of organization as they packed up the show and drove into the night from one town to the next.

But in 2016, the circus, renamed Cole Bros., did not make it onto the road, ending a run that had begun 132 years earlier in 1884.  And Ringling wrapped up its 146 year run in 2017. 

These photographs now offer a glimpse of immigrant performers – Spanish, Bulgarian, Mexican, and more – pursuing their slice of the American Dream; of increasingly controversial displays of elephants and bears, tigers and horses; of an entire village that packs up and moves on the proverbial American open road.  It was a most American of circuses; it was an America that was. 

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Before the Show, at the Backdoor ●Before the Show, at the Backdoor ● Before the Show, at the Backdoor