Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus

Ringling 2

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
November 4, 1999

Calling itself “The greatest show on earth”–as the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus does–is a bold claim to make at a time when Cirque du Soleil is captivating audiences with its sophisticated artistry, and Cher is touring with a team of spunky aerialists (and a battalion of wigs).

Opening-night jitters Wednesday at the Allstate Arena may have been responsible for some missed tricks, but Ringling Bros., which was founded in 1871, still manages to put on an entertaining show year after year.

With its arsenal of acrobats, clowns and animals (including elephants, tigers, ostriches, horses, doves, camels, yaks), the circus climaxed with a thrilling Globe of Death routine that puts those Xtreme sports dudes to shame.

Encased in a 16-foot lattice-steel ball, three motorcyclists expertly raced around at 60 mph in the tiny space.

At one point, a nonplussed young woman calmly stood in the center as the men whizzed by inches away from her. Those with front-row seats could smell the rubber burning as the tires sped inside the globe. That smell, by the way, was much less pungent than that of the 13 elephants that preceded the act.

The Wuhan Flyers missed their first feat on the trapeze–a routine flip. But when it came time to execute a back flip from a diving board into the hands of the catcher, or an awesome inverted triple pirouette, there were no problems.

Animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel had his work cut out for him when his majestic Bengal tigers stalked their way to the center ring. One stubborn tiger looked as if it would just as soon eat Gebel as listen to him.

The trainer wisely gave it time to adjust its attitude before prodding it on to participate.

As master of ceremonies, baby-faced Johnathan Lee Iverson was a congenial ringmaster who didn’t let on if the half-empty venue affected him. He worked the crowd that was there. And when he showed off his vocals, it was clear that his years in the Boys Choir of Harlem weren’t wasted.

Strangely enough, it was the more common animals that made for the most interesting spectacle. There was the ladder-climbing dog, the tight-rope walking dove, the swinging cat and Robby, the moon-walking horse.

Sure, they didn’t have the pizzazz of the Bengal tigers. But darned if they weren’t cute.

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