By Jay Jamison
Somewhere in east Jacksonville there used to be a place known as the circus grounds. I presume the location is near railroad tracks because some railroad shows played Jacksonville back in the golden age of the monster traveling circus.
My former boss in the circus business — and later good friend — Charlie Bellatti, told me about this place. If memory serves, he also mentioned that the iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had played the lot. Most of my life when people mentioned the circus, they usually spoke in the past tense.
In 1956, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus folded its big top for the last time. The news media of the day eulogized the demise of the American traveling circus.
From that moment on, the Ringling show would only play in large metropolitan arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York. However, the death announcement of the American traveling circus was premature. Even though Ringling no longer performed under a big top, other great tent shows were still performing in front of audiences across the country.
I worked for Charlie Bellatti in the press and publicity department of the mighty Carson & Barnes 5-Ring Circus in the early 1980s. It was a monster show, carrying 25 elephants, about 75 horses, an animal menagerie, and a cast and crew of about 250 people. At the time, our big top was as long as a football field.
After my brief circus show-business career, John Carpenter – another Carson & Barnes alum – and I opened a screen-printing shop in Jacksonville. Charlie Bellatti, who also retired from the circus, would occasionally stop by to give us the latest circus news.
One day in either late 2006 or early 2007, Charlie stopped in and asked, “Guess who just bought the Kelly-Miller Circus?” Kelly-Miller Circus was a moniker that was revived in the middle 1980s and became a successful 3-ring show. Before I had a chance to reply, Charlie answered his own question, “John Ringling- North II!” A Ringling was taking a circus out under canvas for the first time in over 50 years!
Tough times lay ahead. In May 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed after a 146-year run. Charlie Bellatti died at age 91 the end of June 2017. I gave a eulogy for my friend at his funeral, mentioning an upcoming performance of our old show, Carson & Barnes.
After the service, a representative of the show said that Carson & Barnes had unexpectedly ended its 2017 season that very week, in Pennsylvania.
In October, John Ringling North II, in his 77th year, closed out the 2017 season of Kelly-Miller Circus, hoping to find a buyer. None was found, so the show was closed for good.
Last month I visited the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Although it’s a wonderful museum, the walk through the galleries was tinged with sadness. The Ringling show had folded, the railroad cars had been sold and all that remained were mere memories.
Toward the end of the tour, I spoke with a museum guide. I told her about my affiliation with the circus business. She said, “Did you hear? Ringling is coming out with a circus later this year!” I anxiously called a friend who is still in the business, and he confirmed the story.
Apparently, news of the circus’ demise was, once again, premature.