Circuses and traveling carnivals are holdovers from ancient times when troupes of actors, dancers, and exotic characters with their wares would go from place to place, attracting the bored and the curious, sometimes supported by wealthy patrons or royalty as a way to reward (or distract) the masses.
The modern circus had its heyday in the latter part of the 19th century. In a time before radio and television brought entertainment into one's living room, where else could you see acrobats, clowns, magicians, and daredevils right before your eyes?
As circuses tried to abandon the dark side of their history, which drew criticism (the exploitive freak shows and live animal acts), they faced competition from an ever increasing number of alternative options for people's leisure time, from professional sporting events to blockbuster movies. Railroads, automobiles, and airplanes gave folks the chance to travel and explore their country and the world, creating a more jaded customer who was tougher to impress.
The showmen (some would call them hucksters on a grand scale) came up with new gimmicks to bring in the crowds. Motorcycles spinning in giant death spheres! A living unicorn!
The only time I ever skipped school as a kid was when I cut class to go to the circus with my grandfather and cousin. I don't condone such truant behavior, but, man, it's a wonderful memory.
My wife and I took our children to a small circus performance at a local festival this past winter. I loved seeing their thrilled faces as they watched the acrobats and contortionists. I will always cherish hearing them laugh at the ringmaster's jokes and tricks.
When I think of circuses, I don't think of elephants and tigers, I think of trapeze artists, strongmen bending steel, and humans being shot out of cannons. Such live extravaganzas will be missed.