It's the Big Top, the big show, the big lie ... and epic Americana


For all of its flaws, the circus tends to deliver epic Americana. It's has dazzle, daring and a sense of sheer fun. Much of that is also delivered in the season-opening "American Experience" documentary, Monday and Tuesday (Oct. 8 and 9) on PBS. It does capture the flaws and quirks of a circus, but it also reflects centuries of invention and ingenuity. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Johnathan Lee
Iverson, the important advice came straight from the top.

He had just joined
the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, he said, when its
CEO told him something essential. “He said, 'There's the truth and
then there's circus truth.'”
Then again, Iverson already knew
that ... ever since 1985, when Ringling claimed it had a unicorn. “I
was about 9 and I'm ready to see a unicorn .... And this little goat
comes out.”

Later, reporters
pieced together the story: A ma had found a way to alter young goats,
so a single horn grew; he took them to Renaissance fairs; then the
Ringling people bought them and bought his silence.

Iverson was
recalling that, while telling the Television Critics Association
about PBS' new “Circus” documentary. For four hours, viewers will
hear about dazzle, sparkle, skill ... and, alas, lies.

“The tendency
toward exaggeration is absolutely a part of what (P.T. Barnum took)
to another level,” said Janet Davis, a University of Texas
historian and author.

For Barnum, that
started in 1835, when he bought an exhibit supposedly involving
George Washington's former nursemaid, now 161 years old. (She died
the next year, at about 79.) He would continue his museum, Davis
said, “predicated upon all of these incredible falsehoods .... When
he enters the circus business in 1871, He's all-out with the
exaggerations.”

But alongside the
lies, she said, there were people with true talent. The circus has
had the “funny juxtaposition of extraordinary exaggeration with ...
viscerally real entertainment.”

The first American
circus, in the pre-hype days, was in 1793 Philadelphia. An
Englishman, Davis said, was “riding a horse and doing incredible
acrobatics .... A lot of death-defying skill goes into that.”

Washington went
there on his birthday. In the centuries that followed, other
Americans were dazzled.

“I tasted life,”
Emily Dickinson wrote of the circus. “It was a vast morsel.”

“It enables us to
lose ourselves, to dissolve in wonder and bliss,” Henry Miller
wrote.

Others agreed, said
Sharon Grimberg, director of the PBS film. They include writers
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.B. White, Walt Whitman) and a dour president.
“Calvin Coolidge loved the circus.”

In a sprawling,
young nation, Barnum and others perfected the traveling show. A drab
town would have spectacle, Dominique Jando said ... then would be
back to normal “and it's boring again.”

His own experience
was in France, where circuses were stationary. He was 5, he said,
“when my father took me to see Buster Keaton at Cirque Medrano in
Paris. It's why I became a clown.”

Jando was performing
in circuses at 18, married a trapeze star and later became a circus
historian and, at one point, associate artistic director of the
low-hype, high-skill Big Apple Circus.

American circuses
seemed to reflect this country's virtues – imagination, innovation,
daring – and its flaws. There was the exploitation of animals
(especially by the people who sold them to the circuses) and of
outsiders. And there were biases, Grimberg said.“Very rarely did
African-Americans get to perform in the Big Top in the 1950s.”

Much of that had
changed by 1999, when Iverson got a surprise phone call, asking him
to audition for the Ringling show. He had sung with the Boys Choir of
Harlem, attended the “Fame” high school in New York and aspired
to opera, but had given no thought to the circus. “I was 22 at the
time. I just kept hearing 'ringmaster,' and (thinking), 'Man, that's
a great pickup line.'”

He promptly became
the first black ringmaster of a major circus and kept the job until
the Ringling show closed last year – ending its 146-year tradition.
“The minute we made that announcement, suddenly, it was 'Oh my
gosh, Santa Claus is going away.' .... Everything was sold out, all
of a sudden.”

It was the end of
the mega-circus ... but not of the concept. “A lot of small
circuses (are) popping up, regional circus,” Jando said. “So it's
a revival of a different sort.”

-- “The Circus,”
9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, PBS; season-opener for “American
Experience”