Big Tent History

Ah, the circus. What traditional art form better captures the wonder of childhood, the mysteries of nature, the glories of human physical achievement, the... the...

Oh, screw it. We won't lie. What we remember of our one boyhood venture under the big top many, many years ago was not some glorious magical mystery tour. It was a huge, stinking canvas tent in a dusty field in rural Illinois. Temperature? About 105. Relative humidity? About the same. Sad-looking elephants. Grim, scary clowns like street people in grease paint. The odor of camels on a hot, humid day. (Those of you unfamiliar with the smell, think ass.) Hot women in tights.

Hey, we were young, not blind.

It was all too long ago to recall for certain, but we suspect the circus visiting Bumpkinville, Illinois, many summers back was not The Greatest Show on Earth. Rather, it was more likely The Only Show Desperate Enough to Stop at Jerkwater Mining Towns.

So maybe there are mysteries, glories, wonders, whatever to be found at the real deal, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The folks at The Shops at West End MarketPlace apparently think so. In advance of the circus' arrival at American Airlines Center on July 30, they're hosting a free exhibit of circus art, memorabilia, costumes and props.

The exhibit, on display through August 18, includes a "white model" of last year's edition of the circus. That's a scale model of the set design for the circus, cut out of white Styrofoam and used to give the show's creators a bird's-eye perspective of the production. Other items on display include costumes, among them suits worn by ringmasters over the years, which show how something even as traditional as the circus reflects the changing times: Patriotic themes have been big recently; a ringmaster's suit from the '70s sported wide lapels and large floral prints, a spokeswoman for the exhibit says.

We're not sure, but we think we may have worn a similar suit to our junior high school graduation--just one more layer to add to the low-rent Felliniesque nightmare that was our boyhood.

The exhibit also explores the circus' Texas flavor, with a historical mural and bits of advertising and historical factoids. For instance, the 1914 edition of the circus stopped in Corsicana and bought dozens of DeLuxe Fruitcakes, according to press materials for the exhibit, and sent them to friends and relatives across the United States and Europe, popularizing the baker. The cake-maker is now known as Collin Street Bakery, famed purveyor of fruitcakes known nationwide.

OK, so maybe you've received one of those fruitcakes for Christmas instead of cash. Forgive the circus. It's still The Greatest Show on Earth. They have the registered trademark to prove it.