The Demise of Ringling– And a Message of Hope


NYTimes article about Ringling closing down.

Click the image to see the full Ringling article on the NYTimes website.

I have been gobsmacked like many by the news that Ringling Brothers Circus will close down after 146 years of solid operation.  Mr. Feld, owner of the circus, is losing too much money, and has to call it quits.

Friends are losing jobs, houses, lives, and for some, they may well feel that the meaning of their lives has gone a little off kilter.

As a graduate of Clown College, (although I never worked on Big Bertha) I’ve been formulating some thoughts on the way forward, and feeling very down in the dumps, wondering about the future of circus.  I admit it, I’m despairing.

Enter my good friend, mentor, and in general amazing dynamo Steve Smith, who came to the rescue with some heartfelt and hopeful words.  Steve was a Ringling Clown for a number of years, was the Circus’s Goodwill Ambassador, then served as the dean of Clown College for 10 years(and was the dean while I was there!)  He has since worked directing circuses, festivals, cruise ship shows, and as the assistant to cartooning legend and master Chuck Jones. and all sorts of other things. His current gig is as Creative Director of the Circus Center of San Francisco, where he helps clowns and performers be better people (and by extension performers)


Here’s the eloquent message of hope (and well-timed kick in the pants) that Steve posted on his facebook page:  (posted here with his permission)

I hope it brings you a little bit of hope like it did me.  And to quote that lover of clowns Samuel Beckett  “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”


Sunday, January 15, 2017

As the news of the demise of the Big Apple Circus was finally finding a place of uncomfortable compromise in my psyche, came the thunderbolt announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would also be…no more.

To some, these are just sad but true realities at the level of difficult business decisions – hard to make but necessary. To others, just another news story of yet another shop that has to shutter its doors. But for some of us, this is news that shakes the very foundation of our souls. This hits at the level of who we are, what we do and why we’re here. This is devastating.

For me, these were more than just places of employment. These were the incubators of my dreams;
These were the classrooms for my creative spirit;
These were the playgrounds for my imagination;
These were the places that gave me purpose. They gave my life purpose.

Steve "TJ Tatters" Smith

Steve Smith as TJ Tatters, his clown persona

For 45 of my 65 years on the planet, this is what has forged my love & passion for performance art with all the different parts and pieces of who I am – This is what has defined…me.

And so…where to from here? How do I make sense of it all? How do I unbreak my heart?

I. Get. Up.

I feel the full force of my loss. I wail and howl and weep with grief. I fall to my knees asking why & how and cursing the cruel, heartless fickleness of fate…but, I. Get. Up.

I honor my teachers and my colleagues and my friends and my family by not giving in to despair. I salute all those who came before me by not giving up. I reach down into the depths of my shattered soul to find the strength to give this life my absolute best.

And I am painfully aware that this will take more than strength…this will require courage. There is a terrific quote from Mary Anne Radmacher that says:

“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.”

And so, I must get up; I must try…again and again and again. It will most certainly not be easy…but it will be worth it. Because the alternative is not acceptable.

The circus ring is a circle…a symbol of unity. It is continuous – it has no beginning, it has no end. A great and glorious part of circus history has come to an end, but the circus, as an art form, didn’t die today. It is evolving. It is up to us to pick up the dimmed & tattered torch that has traveled across time and through the ages; to dust it off; to reignite the fire of wonder and awe and to fan that spark into an unquenchable flame that is the future of the circus. To do anything less is simply unthinkable.

And so, get up.

Onward,…ever onward!

~ steve ~

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