Circus Elephants Make Their Final Exit
In honor of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ elephants final performance in the New York area, the New York Times ran a series of photographs of the herd, at its height insofar as numbers are concerned in the 50’s, making the long trek along busy city streets from where they disembarked from the train in the Bronx to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. The photos brought back a flood of wonderful memories from my childhood when I scoured the New York papers at the time I had learned to expect the show to arrive in New York in late March or early April. I was never disappointed because that spectacular parade was one of the stories all the papers loved to cover with pictures as their way of announcing that spring had arrived with the circus.
When I attended the show in Madison Square Garden a week or so later, I usually took a big bag of peanuts from home (my mother’s way of saving a few cents) with which I would feed the elephants in the Garden basement. I soon learned how to get them to trunk up, and I would throw the peanuts into their waiting mouths or sometimes drop them into their wet trunks when they managed to stretch them across the barrier. I will always hold dear the thrill associated with entering the old Garden rotunda and then descending those wide stairs into the basement to see the menagerie, in particular the elephants. That memory is well ingrained by the strong ”perfume” that arose from the basement as one hurried downstairs, eventually to be greeted by the giraffes and the frozen custard truck as one hit the basement floor.
Of course once the show began the appearance of the elephants was my favorites moments. They were always spectacularly costumed by Miles White who in later life became a close friend, and I was able to rekindle those memories many times rooting through his collection of circus costume sketches.
One of my long held wishes was to be able to ride an elephant. That wish came true a couple of times.In 1971, when I was 33 years old the circus train parked at the West end of 33rd St and the press corps, I among them, was invited to ride an elephant from the train to the Garden a matter of several long crosstown blocks. What a thrill it was to have kids along the sidewalk shout up at me and ask how the air was up there. Coincidentally I was accompanied into the city that time by Frank Murray who was then a student of mine and who later became an elephant trainer himself. A few years later I was a guest ringmaster for the Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros show, again because of my press connections, and I rode an elephant around the track before blowing the opening whistle.
These are memories I shall cherish. I have a picture of one of those rides framed and hanging next to my desk.
So while the announcement that the elephants were being retired came as a shock, I am only now beginning to understand how much I shall miss those beloved stars, which are indelibly associated with the happiest moments of my childhood, and the thought of never seeing them again in that environment makes me very, very sad.