Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Come see the greatest show on earth!” And welcome to Circus! Art and Science Under the Big Top, now playing at the Bruce Museum through January 9.
Greenwich loves a circus. A few of our boys have actually run away and joined it. Back in the days when Clyde Beatty came to town to benefit the library, we used to wake up our children at 5 a.m., pile them into the station wagon in their pajamas and drive over to the Old Greenwich Civic Center to watch an elephant named Sue put up the tents. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, inside one of the trailers parked in the field slept a young man putting himself through medical school by performing as a clown. Later, Dr. Neil Kahanovitz, an eminent orthopedic surgeon, told us: “I woke up in the trailer one morning, looked out at that beautiful scene and thought this is where I want to live someday.” And for a while he did, in an historic Mediterranean mansion on the water in Riverside.
History has it that the first modern circus began in England in 1770, when a gentleman named Phillip Astley built a ring so that horseback riders could perform their stunts continuously before their audience. It arrived in the United States in 1793 and with the expansion of the railroad became more popular and profitable than ever, attracting entrepreneurs such as P.T. Barnum and James Bailey. In the early 1800s Hachaliah Bailey Brown bought an elephant (the second to come to America) to harnass up for farm work in Somers, New York, but “Old Bet” drew so much attention he decided it was a brighter idea to tour the northeast with her. Sadly she was shot dead in Maine by staunch supporters of the blue laws who thought it was sinful to be entertained on Sundays, but not before Old Bet and Hachaliah had inspired others to tour with exotic animals. According to his 1955 biography, a young P.T. Barnum once met Hachaliah, and his fame fanned the enthusiasm of the next generation of circus promoters. Despite the drop in attendance in the 1950s due to the emergence of television and other forms of entertainment, the circus continues to excite and delight us today.
Old Bet is long gone, but in her honor, Somers, New York, ended up with the Elephant Hotel (now the Somers Town Hall), designated a National Historic Landmark, a high school team called the Tuskers and a reputation as the birthplace of the American circus. Since the Bruce show opens with an exploration of circus history, its curators Diane Clifford and Caroline Shields have worked closely with the Somers Historical Society, along with the Ringling Museum and Big Apple Circus, to secure costumes, tools, toys, broadsides and vintage photographs dating back to the early nineteenth century.
The second part of the Bruce exhibition show-cases pieces of fine art by such artists as Matisse, Calder, Chagall and Toulouse-Lautrec that depict the evolution of the circus over the years, reflecting its successes and its struggles.
Finally, the Bruce reflects on the science and math involved in circus performances—why the tightrope walker carries a balancing pole, how
the sword swallower slides this sharp object down his throat, how the contortionist can become a human pretzel, how Newton’s laws of motion apply to the man on the flying trapeze.
Circus! Art and Science Under the Big Top is fascinating fun for the whole family—capped with performances, games, craft activities and educational programs throughout the months ahead. For those readers who are tempted to run away and join the circus, you don’t have far to go. Just head down to One Museum Drive.