The company has faded over the decades, its grandeur eclipsed and its animal acts seeming fusty, but make no mistake: Something irreplaceable will be lost when Ringling closes up its tent for good — a tradition of inspiring awe that connected parent to child, generation to generation.
Ringling didn’t invent the circus, whose modern origins date to around the founding of this country, but it supersized it, increasing the blockbuster visuals and the travel. P. T. Barnum and his partners led the first circus to transport its entire show (including animals) on newly built transcontinental railroads and coined the phrase “greatest show on earth.” After joining with a competitor in 1881 to become Barnum & Bailey, they toured Europe, gaining steam before merging with another competitor, Ringling Brothers, in 1907. What resulted was a cultural behemoth.
At Madison Square Garden, its production of “Cleopatra,” showcasing a cast of 1,500, made Elizabeth Taylor’s movie look modest.
By the middle of the century, John Ringling North, the circus’s impresario for three decades, promised to modernize the show, signing up Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine to make a ballet of elephants. Brooks Atkinson, the chief theater critic for The New York Times, poked fun at the gimmick, before locating the peculiar appeal of the circus. “Nothing save the circus can overpower you with such a tremendous mass of entertainment,” he…