What the circus is really about: child's look of wonder

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 111th edition. Presented at Madison Square Garden. When you've been to the circus several years in a row, things begin to run together in your mind. Is the 1981 edition more colorful, more lively, more spectacular than last year's? To be honest, it's hard to tell.

Yet one thing did strike me all over again, as I attended the latest opening night at Madison Square Garden -- the look of wonder and delight that still passes over the faces of children as they gaze at the "greatest show on earth." I'm sure it's the same look kids had 111 years ago, when the show was new.

I see it today on tiny kids who can't take their eyes off the arena long enough to find their seats. I see it on older ones, like my ten-year-olds, who have seen many circus performances and seem to treasure the annual repetition of features and events as a kind of pleasant ritual. And I see it on some grownups , too -- especially those accompanied by youngsters, and seeing the spectacle largely through their eyes.

Regardless of comparisons with other years, the latest edition is a big and bold as you could wish. Tow "units" tour the United States each year and have now launched their new touring season.

This year it's New York's turn for the package with the biggest superstars -- animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, acrobat Dolly Jacobs, and my personal favorites, the Urias Troupe, who ride motorcycles in a "globe of death."

All these showpersons are in top form, though Miss Jacobs makes her act look so easy that we need the ringmaster to keep telling us how hard it is. In defense of the Urias Troupe, I know they have about the shortest act in the circus, but it's easily the noisiest. And how can you help loving two men who devote their lives to zooming upside down inside a giant wire mesh basketball?

Each year I lose patience with the costume extravaganzas, with their silly songs and predictable choreography. So I didn't pay much attention to "The Good Ship Ringling" or "The Circus Street Parade" or the "Three-Ring Send-Off," even though each is billed as "first time anywhere." But even when the action runs down, you can always read your program, munch your popcorn, chat with your neighbor -- or turn your eyes to the kids in the audience, who put on a "greatest show" just by being there, and obviously having the time of their l ives.

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