Let’s go to the circus of once-upon-a-time, before television and films short-changed our imagination and our sense of wonder.
‘Roll-up, roll-up!’ the barker in a black top hat and red tails twirls his moustache like a sideshow villain. ‘Come and thrill at the real-life giant Gilbert Reichert, the World’s tallest man. He stands taller than a horse as tall as a house. Don’t believe me? Then step this way… Or come marvel at Nina Pushnik the armless legless girl. See her move, this way and that, this way and that. No arms! No legs! But a head that talks and sings! Or maybe you like comic books, young man? Do you? What about you? Then come and read the greatest human comic you’ll ever can meet – Betty Broadbent the legendary Tattooed Lady. A thousand ink tattoos, rippling on her skin. A thousand ink tattoos, a thousand tales to be told. Watch them unfold and come to life right before your eyes. Step this way, step right this way!’
On the midway the crowds throng. The warm breath of hotdogs and sweet onions, the sticky gasp of cotton candy. Kids pulling parents hands, ‘This way, pop, this way mom!’ The circus is in town and every dream that can be found will come to life before your eyes.
Television and film killed the circus like television and filmed killed imaginations. Try picture someone you love or something you once cared about. Fuzzy, dim lit memories. Not bright and beautiful like these pictures of a-once-lived world.
Here’s the circus out in mid-west America during the 1940s and 1950s. The performers smile for the camera, the crowds swell in expectation, the children gasp at the terror of a man dressed as a blood-thirsty gorilla escaped from its pen to terrorise the kids in the front rows. These photographs are like images from the pages of a Ray Bradbury story or perhaps a memory from his life?
Bradbury once explained how the circus changed his life:
I was in love with circuses and their mystery: I suppose the most important memory is of Mr. Electrico. On Labor Day weekend, 1932, when I was twelve years old, he came to my hometown with the Dill Brothers…. He was a performer sitting in an electric chair and a stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end. I sat below, in the front row, and he reached down with a flaming sword full of electricity and he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose and he cried, “Live, forever!” And I thought, “God, that’s wonderful. How do you do that?” The next day, I had to go to the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, “Stop the car,” and he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “I have to get out.”
Here I was, a twelve-year-old kid saying this, and my father stopped the car and I got out and he was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn. But I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival. Until a few years ago, I’d forgotten about that funeral. But I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. Mr. Electrico was down with the carnival at the bottom of the hill. And by God I got there and he was sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was sort of scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you made disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, “Can you show me how to do this?” It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician.
He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, “Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people?” And I said, “Yes, sir, I would.” He said, “C’mon.” So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, “Clean up your language! Clean up your language!”
He took me in, and the first person I met was the Illustrated Man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! I didn’t call him that, he was the Tattooed Man. I changed his name later for my book. But I met the Strong Man, I met the Fat Lady, I met the trapeze people, I met the dwarf and the skeleton. They all became characters later in my life.
Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and talked, and all of a sudden, I don’t know why he said it, he leaned over and he said, “I’m glad you’re back in my life.” I said, “What do you mean? I don’t know you.” He said, “Yes. You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the battle of the Argonne Forest and you died in my arms outside there, twenty-two years ago. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.” Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? It could be that he saw the intensity for which I live.
Every once in a while at a book signing I see a young boy or girl who is so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Because they are so alert, and everything you say, they are hanging on it. It could be that maybe at the age of twelve there was something in my face that I couldn’t see, of course, but he did. Maybe that’s what attracted him.
So when I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks because I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. And so I went home and within days I started to write. And I’ve never stopped. Isn’t that amazing? It makes me cold all over to think about it. My life was turned around completely.
Next time the circus comes to town, why not go and visit, you never know it might just change your life.
Buy poster prints of circus posters in the shop.
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