Back in the mid-1950s circuses were still a Big Thing, and none were bigger than the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which styled itself The Greatest Show On Earth. So it was a really big deal when it announced it was coming back to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for the first time in 34 years in June, 1955, bringing its Big Top tent with all three rings. As it happened, that was also the last year that it would tour with its own big top tents; henceforth, it would use sports stadia and arenas to produce its spectacles.
The circus would pitch its tent in the vacant lot at 8th Avenue across from the Key Drive-In, underneath the 422 overpass. At least it was a big vacant area in those days.
I had learned about circuses in kindergarten from Mrs. Rohrbach. She had told us how they wintered in Sarasota, Florida, in preparation for touring the country during the warmer months, and she had shown us pictures of Emmet Kelly, the famous sad clown.
There was also a weekly television program, Big Top, airing around this time featuring circus acts (“The circus comes to town every single Saturday, complete with clowns, brass band, trained animals and trapeze artists -- the biggest circus acts from all over the world!”), although Circus Boy would not appear for another year.
So I was well versed in all things having to do with circuses, and I was looking forward to attending. There must have been some advertisements, either on television or in the newspaper, that I haven’t been able to track down, because I remember that the thing I was most excited about seeing was the man who could stand on his index finger.
The circus itself must have been a truly grand spectacle based on the newspaper publicity that I have been able to track down. Under that Big Top tent were three rings of often simultaneous acts. There were nearly two hundred tons of elephants in a “magnificent spectacle ‘Mama’s in the Park’” with 20 new baby elephants from India.
There were trapeze artists, there were lions and tigers and bears, there were “humanized chimps” whatever that means.
But to tell the truth, I only recall two things from my trip to the circus.
When we got there, we walked past the sideshows. I wanted to go in because I was certain there would be something of interest inside, but my killjoy parents rushed us past them without pausing.
And I remember the man who could stand on his index finger, which wasn’t as exciting as I expected it to be. Oh, he did stand on his index finger all right, but as I recall, he took his time doing it, making it a little bit too dramatic for my taste. Also, we were sitting in a crowd in a Big Top tent, and he was all the way down there in one of the three rings. No close ups like you get on TV. By the way, I have now learned that his name was Frank Furtner and he used the stage name Unus.
And yep, that’s all I recall of The Greatest Show On Earth. Actually, my memory is worse than that. Before I did the research and found the newspaper clips, I would have sworn the circus came to Lebanon at least a year or two later than it did.