Phineas Taylor Barnum was not called the greatest showman of all time because he put together spectacular shows; what made him the master was his unparalleled ability to convince people of a show's greatness, despite what they might have seen with their own eyes. P.T. Barnum didn't just buy an elephant; he bought Jumbo the Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race, Whose Like the World Will Never See Again, then he walked the beast across the Brooklyn Bridge. Barnum had style.
Even before Barnum joined promotional forces with James A. Bailey, his P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome, and Greatest Show on Earth had become the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth. When the Ringling Bros. -- progeny of Wisconsin, the state known as the natural "Mother of All Circuses" -- began making a name for themselves as the new "Kings of the Circus World" with the Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals, Barnum wasn't overly vexed. Competition kept a man sharp, and he was still the unrivaled king of the sideshow.
After Barnum's death in 1891 and Bailey's in 1907, Ringling Bros. absorbed the Barnum & Bailey Circus, along with several other major shows, including Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, Sparks, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and John Robinson. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opened its 1919 season in Madison Square Garden as the undisputed Greatest Show on Earth. By the 1950s, though, things had changed. Public taste and decorum (or boredom) drove people from the midways, and in 1956, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its final performance under the Big Top.
Enter Irvin Feld, the man who took the circus out of the dusty dimness of tents and into the bright lights of arenas. Today, Feld Entertainment Inc. is a nice family affair, purveyors of wholesome entertainment like Disney on Ice, Siegfried & Roy, and Ringling Bros. It's been over 40 years since Feld's featured a sideshow as part of the circus. This year, though, the ever culturally savvy production company promised to rekindle the spirit of P.T. Barnum with a "cavalcade of captivating curiosities."
It's a blinding day at the New Arena in Oakland. As dusk falls the air is filled with particles of dust raised from the circus trailers. I edge my way into the flow of squealing children and hopeful parents, intent on reaching the ring in time to watch the clowns put on their makeup. Along the walkway, members of Animals Rights Connection carry graphic signs bemoaning the treatment of circus animals. They pass out orange fliers to parents and children alike, catching puzzled looks from 8-year-olds who seem like they don't really want to be there anyway.
Inside the arena, the three rings are teeming with clowns in various states of undress. Some sit on pedestals at large makeup mirrors, applying their mouths; others run from ring to ring hunting for wigs, squeezing customers' noses, and doing somersaults. Families scamper from one ring to the next trying to glean everything at once. Khan -- an 8-foot-tall man from Pakistan -- leans uneasily against a custom-made armrest. Even in repose, his body looks as if it might be a discomfort, but he willingly poses with countless terrified children while their parents snap photos. Two little acrobats -- 48-inch Alexandre Pavlov and 44-inch Tatyana Pavlova -- stand below signing autographs. Mysticlese the Master of the Mind, a Romanian "mystic," walks across a bed of light bulbs. (He is said to do the same with eggs.) The young Ayalas Sisters, fifth-generation circus hair-twirlers, stand prettily nearby.
After an hour of hands-on clowning, the crowd is told to take their seats. The arena fills, and the lights dim. "It's sideshow time," whispers an orange-haired man with big shoes and a sinister grin. "It's what you've been waiting for."
Great insectlike stilt-walkers stalk into the ring followed by a parade of dancing nymphs and ornate platforms. As ringmaster Jim Ragona croons some Disney-style drivel about circus life, a Russian-born gymnast named Marina the Lady of the Cube crawls out of an alien-looking flower and crushes her entire 5-foot-4-inch frame into a 14-inch plexiglass cube. Vesuvius, a young man from equatorial Africa, blows fire from atop a fiberglass volcano. Mysticlese climbs a ladder of swords on his bare feet. Nikolai the Iron Jaw bends a "solid steel" bar with his teeth. Khan and his little acrobats do some tricks with a ladder. Tong the Prince of Pythons wraps an uncooperative 16-foot boa constrictor around his body (highly unimpressive until he runs into the audience and several mothers scurry to the far end of their rows clutching their children).
Everything happens quickly, without any buildup or drama, until Mishu is introduced in the center ring. At 33 inches, Mishu is a huge circus star. He is seven inches shorter than P.T. Barnum's infamous General Tom Thumb, who, with the help of Barnum's razzle-dazzle, was given audiences with both Queen Victoria and Ab-raham Lincoln. Mishu has appeared with Michael Jackson and John Travolta, and played Alf on TV. He does a little dance from his native Hungary and stands there smiling. The crowd seems vaguely indifferent.