You’ll find few clowns in Canton … or camels or trained lions or cotton candy vendors. Pity poor Canton, Illinois. In 1825, a settler named Isaac Swan thought that his new town at Canton, China, were antipodes. That is, his little village was directly on the opposite side of the globe from the Chinese town. This wasn’t exactly accurate, but since Canton was easier to spell than Chongqing or Guangzhou, the name stuck. But poor Isaac and his infant child died in 1835 when a tornado hit Canton and here’s where the story gets hairy. A circus had visited Canton on the previous week and many of the local religious wags claimed that this was Divine Retribution for allowing such a sinful thing into their town. Okay, you can laugh that off if you like but in 1975 another tornado hit Canton, taking two lives and doing major damage to the downtown district. A circus had just visited the city the week before … the first time lions, tigers, bears and clowns had been in town since the last tornado. The Canton city council may have been superstitious, religious, or just plain goosey, but they passed an ordinance in November of 1975 banning circuses within the city limits … forever.
I thought of Canton when the famed Ringling Brothers Circus announced that it would be closing after more than 100 years in operation. They cited high operating costs and the decline in ticket sales as the reason and I’m sure that the removal of the elephants under pressure from certain groups took some of the thrill away. Of course any fourth-grader can now watch a circus and even more spectacular spectacles on his IPhone during recess. My friend Jay Jamison wrote of this in the Journal Courier and his expertise gained on the road with Carson and Barnes certainly outweighs my knowledge of the subject. I must confess that I’m a circus newbie.
Perhaps Mr. Trump would be pleased to know that the only circus I’ve ever attended was in Moscow. I’d take a group of Jacksonville and Triopia folks on tour of the Soviet Union and a part of our purchased package included a night at the Moscow Circus. One Jacksonville lady named Judith Beiderbecke didn’t speak to me for three days after our night out. I later learned that two things she couldn’t stand were heights and trained animals, and the night was filled with dancing bears and aerial acts. You can’t prepare your fellow travelers for everything that might happen, but there was no consoling Judith. Just when she’d decided to speak to me again I made some remark about not liking cats, a remark which cut off our communication for the rest of the trip. When we toured the Bolshoi St. Petersburg State Circus museum Judith stayed on the bus.
All of which is puzzlement to me since the Moscow area has only been hit by three tornados in recorded history and none of them have actually plowed into the town itself. Certainly, none have hit the circus that’s been in operation since 1919.
Every spring I travel to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, to attend the National Troupers Convention, a collection of old-time comedians, jugglers, musicians, dancers and actors who once traveled the nation in tent shows. I’m not one of them, but for two days I get to hear the tales of these octogenarians and older tell their tales of traveling from town to town, putting up their tents, doing a show, then packing it all into trucks or trains and moving on. They are a fascinating bunch and the topic of high winds always comes when they speak of the hazards of performing on the road. My friend, Mickey, told me, “It wasn’t unusual for the local preachers to blame us for the storms.” He said that his father, also a trouper, would always hand out free show tickets to all the local clergy as soon as they hit town. “You had to have the preachers on your side,” he said. “Anything goes wrong in town and the show people would get blamed.”
Which brings me to the fact that I was recently hired to do a music show in Canton, Illinois. They’ve asked me to do a presentation on the evolution of popular American music and much of that music has to do with the traveling circus since circus bands were often the conduit for spreading new tunes around the nation. I don’t know any Canton clergy and have no free tickets to give away … nor do I plan to return for an outdoor picnic on the following week.