The Passing Spectacle Vol. VIII, No.7

The Big E, Somewhat Reduced


It’s been a few years since I last saw and reviewed the Big E Circus. In fact this was my first visit since Wayne McCary stepped down as president of the Big E and producer of its annual free circus. McCary’s love of the circus and its people has always been self-evident in the strong programs he fielded year after year with Tommy and Struppi Hanneford, programs that were stocked from top to bottom with top flight world-class acts.  Billy Martin, who has replaced Struppi and Eugene J. Cassidy the Big E’s new president have collaborated on the current show, working with a budget that appears to be less generous than what was in place in the past.  That change in funding has had a significant impact on the current show that just closed.  It is almost as if the production, in an effort to book some top-flight acts, had to economize by including several less than stellar ones.

I don’t want to get into criticizing some of those latter acts. They performed to the best they have and would have been appreciated and applauded in another setting.  So let me instead concentrate on those that provided the kind of excitement and pleasure a circus performance is capable of delivering.  Several of these are acts we have seen many times before, and they always manage to make an impact.

America’s show camels presented by Ian Garden gives us a close up look at these fascinating creatures whose aloof attitude while trotting their way through the paces set by their trainer, suggests a superiority that most animals would envy.

The Smirnov’s quick change is another popular act. What impressed me most about their act this time was that the gentlemen involved did three quick changes of full three piece suits and ties, a feat that certainly tops a woman’s slipping out of one dress and revealing another.

The Espana family has built a spectacular legacy by putting themselves in danger of being killed in one thrill act or another.   This time it was Mario on the giant wheel, as wildly intrepid as anyone could hope for in such a display of daring.

Steve and Ryan, who have a completely new look, eschewing clown makeup and clown shoes, make two appearances in the show. Their first is a rethinking of their trademark spitting act. Now, instead of playing archetypal clowns they are more or less playing themselves and having a blast doing it as they take turns drenching each other.

Their second appearance, which I enjoyed the most, was a number, beautifully set up by an announcement by the ringmaster Andre McClain, saying in effect that the next act wasn’t quite ready and what was needed was something to kill some time. Enter Steve and Ryan who oblige with a classic musical comedy turn called “Killing Time,”  in which they throw everything but the kitchen sink into the increasingly entertaining mix of stalling gambits.  They joked, they sang and danced, they juggled and played their trumpets producing a crescendo that all but blew the roof off the tent and sent a shiver of excitement through your body.  All this was performed with comically dogged determination to an original song the team had collaborated on with composer Larry Lees.  It was a pure delight from start to finish.  Time was never killed so brilliantly.

Photos by Paul Gutheil.

Elsewhere at the Big E

There was a second attraction at the Big E this year that interested me greatly. It appeared for only one weekend.  This was the Royal Canadian Mounties equestrian unit presenting their beautiful musical ride.  I was particularly interested in seeing this group because their work in many ways replicates a couple of features of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus during the mid ‘20s.  These being the Bengal Lancers drill team, and something called the Fete of the Garlands, which prevailed for a number of years.  I hadn’t even been born yet, so I never got to see these spectacular equestrian displays that reportedly involved at one time over a hundred horses, which may seem an exaggeration except a picture I use in my book From Barnum & Bailey to Feld shows a massive collection of horses and riders waiting at the back door to go on.

In this particular outing the Canadians used only 28 especially bred, matching black horses and riders dressed in the iconic red tunics, black jodhpurs, and hats, but according to my research has at other times included 32. The precision of their maneuvers and the complexity of the patterns and control with which they moved through them made the ever changing presentation impressive in the extreme.  It certainly helps us imagine what audiences of the Greatest Show on Earth experienced so many years ago.

So special was this exhibition that the arena floor had to be cleaned and groomed before the Mounties deigned to step a hoof and make their majestic entrance. Once their exhibition began they filled every corner of the arena.  It was in every respect an eye-filling spectacle, a rare treat not always available to us in the U.S.

OTTAWA, ONT. -JULY 1, 2010- The RCMP Musical Ride performs the famous charge on the west lawn of Parliament Hill just prior to the noon hour Canada Day festivities, July 1, 2010. (Photo by Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen.) Assign#100485