The greatest show on earth.

One of my old N-S sources/connections/lunch dates checked in via the comments on the N-S piece, below. Hey, Pete! Good to see you here. I haven’t seen him in years, and he brought up one of the single most amusing stories that either of us lived through. He was an actual participant; I just read about it in the paper and laughed my butt off.

Pete was an officer in a service club that planned to bring a circus to Fort Wayne in 1986 — the Toby Tyler Circus. Their posters said, “a tradition since 1881,” which, I contend, might lead a reasonable person to believe the Toby Tyler Circus had been in more or less continuous operation for a century. In fact, the Toby Tyler Circus had been around for about five minutes, and laid claim to “since 1881” on this basis: The book “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus,” about a little boy who runs away to join one, had been published in 1881.

This was a sure sign of trouble. Unfortunately, it’s one nobody saw until it was too late.

The Toby Tyler Circus was traveling east, and leaving a trail of unfortunate incidents in its wake, stories our very bright and enterprising police reporter, David Allen, noticed on the wire when it was still near the Illinois line. There was a bleachers collapse, show cancellations, the sorts of things that, if they involved more bare breasts, might have made a halfway decent episode of “Carnivale.” Unfortunately, they just made hay for David, who started writing stories taking note of the approaching, delaminating circus, which was scheduled to play in Fort Wayne in just a few days.

These stories, as you might imagine, didn’t please the service club or the people who were in charge of making sure the show went on safely — police and fire officials, who began telling David they were sure interested in inspecting the circus’ equipment and permits and all that stuff. Meanwhile, the venue that was supposed to host this affair decided you know, we don’t need this trouble and cancelled their reservation. This was, like, the day before the show.

The circus arrived in town, trailed by David, the fire marshal, various other authorities and, of course, Pete. The road manager/ringmaster kept saying, “Don’t worry, the show will go on! We’re a circus, we make people happy! It’s our tradition!” Which I think is when the “since 1881” business was revealed, but I’m not sure. (I’m relying on my memory, and my 20-year-old impression was, the whole business played out like farce.)

The circus spent the morning shuttling around town, authorities in tow, getting booted from this place and that, increasingly desperate, until finally they were knocking on doors out in the country saying, “Can we borrow this field?” (David was actually filing updates on this breaking story; we were an afternoon paper, after all, and the show was supposed to be that night.)

At one point someone said yes, which led to perhaps the best single quote of the story, the year, and maybe ever:

“I got a call from my tenants this morning and they said there were a couple of midgets in the back yard putting up a big tent.”

I think it was then — when the landlord came over and evicted the midgets, when the ringmaster finally faced the truth, when Pete and his service club finally grasped just how bad a horse they had bet on — that the circus was finally shut down, although all they did was move on to the east and the next gig.

I think David wrote at least one more story, quoting a couple of homeless guys who were hired to do setup in the next town down the road and never got paid. He kept a Toby Tyler Circus poster up next to his desk until he left the paper five years later. I met Pete shortly thereafter; he mentioned his work with the service club. “You mean the ones who had the fiasco with the circus?” I asked. He was not amused. Over time, I got him to admit it was at least a legitimate story, although it took forever.

And just to show you how years can pass and nothing changes, there’s this: In 2004, when the Fellows visited Toronto, Alan and Kate and I made a side trip to Niagara Falls. (I’d never been there, and the Turks in the group were all going, in part to see a great North American natural wonder and in part to see the site of the Marilyn Monroe movie “Niagara.”) While there I picked up a $3 booklet in the gift shop, about people who’ve gone over the falls in barrels and other conveyances. I became convinced — still am — that there’s a great, great movie to be made about these people, and remembered that a Detroit-area man had been the last one to go over the falls. In fact, he’d been the only person to survive a falls plunge with no protective equipment. He later more or less admitted he was trying to commit suicide, but in the immediate aftermath acted like he’d planned the whole thing.

After we got back to Ann Arbor I looked up the stories about him, then did further Googling. When the spotlight shifted away he was still an unemployed metro Detroiter, but like so many falls daredevils before him, he was able to trade his foolhardiness for a little lasting notoriety and a job.

As “world’s greatest stunt man.” With the Toby Tyler Circus.

Which is still having PR problems. Although only God knows if it’s even the same one.

Sorry it’s been a little spotty around here. Much work. I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about work here — one of the things I’m being paid for is not to scoop my own employers — but it’s fair to say this: I’m doing lots of work for magazines, and with their long lead times, this means it’s Christmas in my head. Talk about rushing the season. I’ve been thinking of chestnuts roasting on an open fire for days and days, and we haven’t even carved the pumpkins yet.

Things will ease up soon. In the meantime, tell us a circus story.

Posted at 9:19 pm in Uncategorized |

4 responses to “The greatest show on earth.”

  1. basset said on October 24, 2005 at 9:57 pm

    chestnuts? how about…

    “Chipmunks roasting on an open fire…”

    have to drag that one out every holiday season, along with Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family.”

    184 chars

  2. ashley said on October 24, 2005 at 11:10 pm

    When I was at FSU, the Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros. circus was donated to their already strong program in circus. Circus was a subject: you take classes in circus.

    So, anthro and sociology majors were superior to music majors, who were superior to theatre majors, who were superior to dance majors, who finally became superior to somebody: circus people.

    355 chars

  3. alex said on October 25, 2005 at 12:26 am

    And here I thought IU was phenomenal in that it offered a degree in recreation and leisure. Actually knew a guy with such a degree, although I think he got his at Champaign-Urbana. He was known as “flower boy” around the office because he worked for the rent-a-plant service that tended to a vast atrium garden in the lobby. Someone chatted him up one day and he took a proofreading test and got hired into editorial. Actually somewhat bright, he was given to rhapsodising about Derrida with a clique that fancied itself “the guardian class,” a conceit taken from another favorite author of kids who thought they were living in Paris in the ’20s in Chicago in the ’80s.

    I have a vague remembrance of a circus when young, probably a Barnum & Bailey or one of those. It bored me and made no lasting impression.

    As an adult I became a fan of Cirque du Soleil. My story is I gatecrashed a special benefit performance in Chicago that was about a thousand bucks a pop. A friend from an ad agency managed to snag us press credentials. He was to be the reporter. I was to be the photographer. The catch? We were from the big daily in Caracas, Venezuela. And since I couldn’t speak Spanish I didn’t dare open my mouth through the entire thing.

    I had a big, impressive camera and a tripod. I was nervous as hell, sweating bullets and almost certain we’d get nabbed by security and wrestled and pummeled off the grounds. My friend Juan, starstruck and wanting pix of celebs, kept cajoling me�in Spanish, of course. We stood behind a red velvet cordon while Oprah, Irv Kupcinet, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Taylor made their grand entrances. La Liz was the emcee. She did her thing for a few minutes, then bolted. At the time she was the self-appointed world spokesperson for the cause of world AIDS relief, which is what this Cirque du Soleil performance was supposed to be benefitting. It was a pretty small crowd, actually. La Liz bolted immediately after her canned speech, pleading some sort of illness.

    The show was fantastic. I was hooked. I saw it again in California–whole new show just a year later and equally impressive for its phenomenal athleticism. I can see how someone with a thousand bucks to burn would consider it worth a thousand bucks because it was. My seat in Newport Beach that time only cost about sixty or so.

    My other recollection about this event has to do with Richard Roeper, pre-Roeper and Ebert shilling for the movies. Richard Roeper, cub columnist at the Rupert Murdoch Sun-Times. Maybe he was being satirical, but I didn’t read that into his column at the time. I thought somebody must’ve been asleep at the copy desk. To paraphrase: “Who made Liz Taylor the spokesperson for AIDS? What does she have to do with it? Who is she anyway besides having played Mrs. Kravitz on ‘Bewitched'”?

    2834 chars

  4. Hobson said on October 25, 2005 at 10:08 am

    I don’t doubt that the Toby Tyler Circus is as bad, or worse, that it ever was, but the complaint letter you’ve linked to looks like a canned fill-in-the blanks number (from PETA?)that appears in Your Local Paper whenever whatever circus comes to town

    256 chars