Clyde Beatty left his family’s farm as a teenager to join the circus where he became a famous lion tamer. Later he formed his own circus which traveled by rail with as many as forty animals and the finest circus performers. Between 1947 and 1956 the Clyde Beatty Circus drew large crowds when it rolled into our small agricultural town in California.
When I was four years old my dad told us the circus that summer would be set up on the playing field of the school where he taught, just one block from our house. It was not the tight rope walkers or aerialists, not the clowns, animal acts or sideshows I remember. It was watching the workers set up the huge tent with the help of the elephants.
The crew unrolled and stretched out a huge canvas on the ground, then staked it securely with heavy rope. Four tall center masts topped with American flags were hoisted. Then the elephants were led to their places, harnessed with heavy chain attached to the tent. We watched wide-eyed, except Dad who had his movie camera rolling. As the big animals moved slowly forward, each in a different direction, the huge big top rose high off the ground. It still amazes me when I view the old movies of the amazing circus elephants.
One year, during a performance when the tent was packed with a cheering crowd, the wind lifted part of the canvas. A large center pole went up with it. The base swung up and crashed into the bleachers about eight feet from spectators. Parents whisked their children out and refused to take them back no matter how much they begged. One terrified child jumped down the back of the bleachers from about six rows up and dove under the tent, right into a pen with a pack of show dogs. That sent her just as quickly back under the flap where her dad grabbed and scolded her. The show went on, but for many the fun was ruined that year.
Our town has grown and there are fewer lots on which to locate the smaller circuses which come and go every year. There are no more lion and tiger acts or working elephants but one thing has never changed. Excitement is always in the air when the colorful posters go up announcing that the circus is coming to town.
copyright d. gustafson August 2017