We’ll Never Forget
Last month, an American Institution died a premature death when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus gave its last performance. After 147 years and literally thousands of performances, before millions of “kids of all ages”, “The Greatest Show On Earth” is no more than a wonderful memory. But what memories it leaves behind.
My father loved the circus especially Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. As a result about every other year, he would gather the family in his car, drive to Philadelphia where we all attend a matinée performance of “The Greatest Show On Earth”. These trips to the circus resulted in many pleasant memories. Now that Ringling Bros. is a thing of the past, I will over the next week to ten days try to record as many of these memories as possible on the “WE REMEMBER” blog.
The Most Popular Souvenir
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sold all sorts of circus souvenirs on their Midway and inside of the Big Top. The most unusual of these souvenirs were chameleons. These were tiny lizards had the ability to change their color to match the background of where they perched. They were sold by the hundreds by barkers on the Midway and inside the Big Top. When you bought one of these live, little creatures, they came with a piece of string looped around their neck that was connected to a safety-pin with which you could attach your pet chameleon to your shirt. I loved getting one and wearing it to school the next day pinned to a multi-colored shirt. All of the kids would love to watch the little chameleon crawl over my shirt and change color as it attempted to blend in with each color it passed over.
My Friend Who Ran Away & Joined The Circus
When we were growing up, almost every boy in America, at one time or another, dreamed of running away from home and joining the circus. Obviously for most kids who grew up in the 40s and 50s, it was simply that – a dream! Once the circus left town, they would put aside those dreams, and do as their parents wanted and as the song said – “become “doctors and lawyers and stuff”.
However, I did know one exception. I actually knew a kid who ran away from home and joined the biggest circus of them all – Ringling Brothers.
The entire time that Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey was performing under tents, they employed hundreds of unskilled workers who traveled from town to town with the show. Working for a small salary plus a bunk and three meals a day, these so-called roustabouts performed the heavy lifting for the circus. They were the workers that pounded hundreds of tent stakes into the ground with sledge hammers, dragged the tons of canvas that made the tents, erected the tents, washed the dishes, tended the animals, etc., etc. Sometimes working 12 to 14 hours a day, the life of a circus roustabout was anything but glamorous. Turnover among these roustabouts was very high causing circus management to be continually recruiting new laborers at every stop.
Robert Branch was great big, black kid who landed in my 7th grade class. Having been passed over for promotion several times Robert was the oldest and biggest kid in our class by far. Indeed, he could easily pass for 18 or more. Robert, an orphan, was being raised by his elderly, unemployed grandmother. Although she tried to do right by Robert, old Mrs. Branch had a hard time making ends meet and raising Robert. He was a slow learner who was constantly in trouble in school and as rumor had it with the local authorities.. All things considered, Robert’s lot in life was very poor and his future extremely dismal.
That year in 7th grade, the week before Ringling Bros. came to Norristown, Robert was telling any and everyone who would listen that when the circus came to town that he was going to run away and join the circus. Most of the kids didn’t believe Robert and none of the adults did anything to discourage him.
When I went to watch the circus set up, there was Robert pulling canvas and pounding stakes. When I went back that evening, there was Robert again. This time loading tent poles on a circus wagon. That was the last that I ever saw Robert Branch. He never came back to school and for all I know he never came back to Norristown. However, for years whenever I heard anything about Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, I would think of and wonder what ever had happened to Robert Branch – the only kid that I ever knew who actually ran away from home and joined the…
Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows
“THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”
Click on link below to see other Memories Of “The Greatest Show On Earth
Posted by Frank Fleming
1936 – 2016