Under the Big Top

Alabama Living Magazine
Illustration by Dennis Auth.

Selma. Summer. 1949. 

I had just “graduated” from Mrs. Elder’s kindergarten and was scheduled to start first grade at Byrd School when I woke to the news. 

While I was sleeping, the circus came to town. 

On a siding in the railway yard, roustabouts had unloaded crates of circus cargo, including cages in which exotic animals paced and pawed. Then, when everything was in place, a line formed and the whole kit-and-caboodle paraded along Broad Street to announce their arrival. 

We were ready. Word had spread and it seemed like everyone who lived between Marion and Montgomery turned out. My Daddy hoisted me upon his shoulders so I could see.  

What a sight it was. Lions and tigers, monkeys doing tricks, acrobats on horses, clowns packed into tiny cars, and elephants walking in single file, trunk holding the tail of the one in front. It was a marvel I remember to this day.

Crossing the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus bridge, the parade stopped at what had been a cotton field, and there they set up the Big Top. 

Once everything was in place, they invited us to come and see. We did.

The crowd entered the grounds through the Midway, an avenue of entertainment that lured us toward the main tent.

There were games of chance where guys paid and played in hopes of winning a Kewpie Doll for the girl of their dreams. There were “curiosities” like the “Dog-Faced Boy”, whose snarling scared the little kids. There were bumper cars and a “Tilt-a-Whirl” that was good for at least one throw-up from the kid who ate too much cotton candy. All that and more but none of it, the voice over the loud speaker assured us, could compare with what awaited us under the Big Top.

So, we paid again and in we went. 

The voice was right. 

Inside we saw “daring young men on the flying trapeze,” along with young women just as daring. We saw bareback riders nearly falling off, but always recovering. We saw knives thrown dangerously close to scantily-clad beauties, and we saw a marksman who never missed. 

No wonder boys dreamed of running away and joining the circus.

What I did not realize at the time was that I was seeing a part of Americana that was already fading away. Traveling shows that entertained small town folks like us were falling prey to rising costs and enforced regulations, especially where animals were concerned. The bigger shows moved to bigger cities with arenas that hosted everything from hockey to basketball to Barnum and Bailey (which stopped presenting its circus shows with animals in 2017).  

As for the smaller shows, a few have hung on and if you want one for your town or event, just search online for “traveling circus” and check them out. 

And if you invite a circus to visit your town, let me know. 

I’d like to see one again.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is retired Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hhjackson43@gmail.com

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Award-winning Alabama Living is the official statewide publication of the electric cooperatives in Alabama and the largest magazine of its type in the state, reaching some 400,000 electric cooperative consumers.

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