Saying Goodbye to the Circus
When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance this week, I felt mixed emotions about the end of this era.
My grandfather, A. Bruce Miller, whom I called Pepa, had a deep connection to the circus that remained an integral part of his life and impacted mine. His father, my great-grandfather, was a musician, a cornet player, for a brief period of time with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which was eventually bought by Ringling Brothers.
As a teenager, Pepa took care of the elephants: feeding them and cleaning out their areas, and he developed a lifelong love of the gentle, intelligent animals, a love that he passed down to me.
His early circus days transformed Pepa’s life and became his life’s work and legacy.
Back in the day when people spent entire careers at one company, Pepa worked for International Harvester for 42 years to support his family, but his life was devoted to carving circus wagons to scale and creating a miniature panorama of circus life including a Big Top, which my grandmother sewed for him. She also helped create costumes for some of his animals and sewed the table’s skirt using circus-themed material.
As a child, I would gaze in wonder at the large table in the basement that was a full display of circus activity. The lion tamer’s cage was always one of my favorites. His wagons, drawn by teams of purchased horses, lined their den’s shelves. After he retired, he and my grandmother moved to Sarasota, the winter headquarters for the circus, to be near the Ringling Brothers’ home and museum, where he helped restore some of the original wagons.
Retirement allowed him more time to devote to carving, and he learned to carve horses and began replacing the purchased ones. Paying homage to his beloved elephants, he carved Marcella, one of my favorite pieces.
Though Pepa has been dead more than 30 years, I can still see him, slightly bent over his workstation, steeped in concentration, creating delicate replicas with as much authenticity as possible. I marveled over his dedication to detail and how his large hands could handle the miniature horse bridles with their tiny buckles and decorations.
The news earlier this year that the circus was shutting down didn’t surprise me because we live in a time of getting entertainment from our cellphones and reality TV shows rather than something of real value and talent. The performers talked about a way of life and generations of family members who have performed with the circus.
Early in my journalism career, I interviewed a celebrated family of stilt walkers, Barrie and Shelagh Sloan, and their son, King. They had performed with Ringling Brothers for a number of years and then returned to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros., which is when I met them. Barrie Sloan came from a long time of performers in England.
The circus closure makes me melancholy for the lost art form, but what really concerns me is getting these stories down before we lose them. I had started asking Pepa to share some of his stories with me, not long before he died. Most of his stories went with him. I had hoped he had written notes about the circus wagons he had created, but if he did, they got tossed out, which is an absolute loss.
I have always worried about leaving the memories of my grandfather to others and making sure his story isn’t lost.
Whether or not your family history includes circus performers, you still have stories to tell about your family’s adventures. Don’t let your own stories or family tales disappear. Start writing them down before it is too late.
Millard is a writer and a project development editor. If you’d like to see how she can help you, email her at bonny dot millard AT gmail dot com and ask for a complimentary Project Discovery Call to learn more.