Circus ties are ties that bind. The current producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Kenneth Feld, took over from his father, Irvin Feld, who bought the circus from the Ringling family. They, in turn, had bought it from James Bailey, who had taken it over from con man, thief, and occasional promoter P.T. Barnum. This was, after all, the man who opened a museum with exciting signs reading "This way to egress!" When people went through the egress, they had to pay another quarter to get back inside.
But sleazy promoters are not the only circus tradition. This year's "Greatest Show on Earth," which begins its tour Wednesday at the National Car Rental Center, features all the things that have made the big top an enduring national pastime. You've got your ringmaster, animal trainers, and clowns, all of whom again reflect the strangely dynastic ways of circus performers. The lead clown this time around is Bello Nock. Easily recognizable by his six-inch high, bright-red coiffure, Bello is a seventh-generation clown whose family traces its performing roots back to 18th-century Switzerland. He performs with an incredibly intelligent pachyderm sidekick, Bo. Mark Oliver Gabel leads the animal act. Gabel's pedigree is also secure as the son of famed animal trainer Gunther Gabel-Williams, who died in 2001.
But the past carries a show only so far, as the near death of the circus in the 1950s did much to illustrate. New acts must arrive with each two-year tour, and this time around, the circus boasts the largest single acrobatic act the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has had to date, along with performers culled from the world of extreme sports, who excite crowds with ski and snowboard aerial feats. Trapeze acts, contortionists, and many more add to the fun. This year or any other, nothing is quite the same when the circus comes to town.