Tears as elixir of youth runs out on Ringling Bros circus

The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a city that is a mecca for circus fans because it was where the Ringling brothers grew up.
The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a city that is a mecca for circus fans because it was where the Ringling brothers grew up.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK •When Mr Dom Yodice heard that the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus was shutting down, he said: "I ran the full cycle of emotions - sadness, anger, frustration. I didn't believe it possible it would no longer be around."

He has seen the Ringling circus more than 100 times, starting when he was six and living in Brooklyn. His parents took him to Madison Square Garden. Many years he went three or four times, sitting in different sections to get a fresh angle on the acts.

"I'd sit on the bottom, then I'd sit on the top, then I'd sit on the end," he said. "Wherever I sat, it was amazing."

But there are fewer people around that are captivated by lion tamers and wire walkers. Costs are rising - Ringling's two troupes, known as the Blue Unit and the Red Unit, rumble from city to city on mile-long trains. And ticket sales are flagging. Opposition from animal rights groups led to the erasure of the show's signature elephants last year.

Given those challenges, Ringling will play four more months, including a run in Brooklyn starting late this month.

It will hold its final performance on May 21 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, on Long Island, before lapsing into memory.

Mr Yodice, 70, is a retired manager at a textile company who now lives in Queens. His parents did not drive and in the early 1950s, entertainment options were scarce.

So the family rode the subway to see the circus year after year. Two circus experiences altered the itinerary of his days. In 1959, when he was 13, he again saw the circus. The next year, the Cecil B. De Mille circus movie, The Greatest Show On Earth, was re-released and he saw that.

The combination unlocked something in him. He began building teeny cardboard replicas of the Ringling circus. In the 1970s, he increased his ambitions. He undertook the creation of a scale model of the circus at the Madison Square Garden that existed in 49th Street. He is still working on it.

He has a ticket to Ringling's final sold-out show, for which he paid six times as much as the list price. After the show, then what?

"I don't know," he said. "Like I told my buddies, I can clean out my basement, put up my model and go down there and look at it and imagine I'm really there. It sounds crazy, but that's what I'll have to do. Live off my imagination."

Mr Gary Payne serves as the president of the Circus Fans Association of America, when he is not selling fences in Connecticut. He has seen Ringling maybe 300 times, in addition to other circuses, starting when he was five.

He believes he owns the chair he sat in at his first circus performance. "As long as I live, I'll never get enough circus," he said.

When he heard of Ringling's end, he said, "I cried like a baby".

"I know we're mortal and we have a life span," he said. "I buried my mother. I buried my father. I buried my best friend. But to me, the circus has always been the elixir of youth. When I visit the circus, I'm five years old again and I have no life span. That immortality has been destroyed."

As it happens, Mr Johnathan Lee Iverson, the ringmaster of the Blue Unit since 1999, was born in New York. When not on the road - about a month a year - he lives on the Upper West Side.

He sings and introduces the acts, his favourite words being the first ones he utters, "Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages…" because, as he put it, "Nothing happens until I say those words."

He is sad as he considers the circus "the last pure magic in the world", but feels he has been fortunate.

"More people have heard my voice live than most of the big pop singers today," he said. "People have grown up on my voice. How can I have any animosity?"

What is next for him?

"I'm hustling," he said. "The resume and the portfolio are out there. One of my ultimate goals is to have a TV talk show and a show on the radio. I like to run my mouth."

And, of course, the show has to go on until May comes and its future stops. "When we get to Nassau coliseum and pack it all up," Mr Iverson said, "I'm thinking we'll go off almost like a myth. We'll be a whisper."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2017, with the headline 'Tears as elixir of youth runs out on Ringling Bros circus'. Print Edition | Subscribe