Becketwood Cooperative
An Active, Independent 55+ Community of Owners in Minneapolis

The last big top

The last big top

a memoir piece by David McKay, Becketwood Member. (This first appeared in the 2012 St. Paul Almanac)

It was a hot, humid stretch in July, 1956. Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus was coming to St. Paul. I really wanted to go. My parents frowned on the idea. My mother was worried about fire. In the late 1940s several people had been killed in a circus tent fire. My father was less concerned, but said he couldn’t get off work to take me.

The circus usually set up behind the old Prom Ballroom off University Avenue next to Lexington Park, home of the American Association Saint Paul Saints. We lived on Lincoln and Syndicate, only a mile from the site. I told my parents I could ride my bike. They agreed, but I had to find a friend to go along. And, we had to attend the daytime matinee performance.

I recruited Larry Marofsky. On the big day, mother packed lunches and off we went. We peddled past the fortress of old Central High School. At the circus site, we expected to see tents, booths and lots of people. But there were just some kids milling about and a few old guys smoking cigars and scratching their heads.

The circus was late. As this news soaked in, the circus train was slowly backing down the rail spur that ran through the midway from the Milwaukee Road mainline. Word spread that the matinee performance, scheduled for one o’clock, would be cancelled. The circus people hoped they could set up in time for the evening show.

Suddenly there was a big commotion.  All the kids began running. Larry and I dropped our bikes (no locks needed back then) and our lunches and ran after them. We found ourselves in a line of pushing and shoving kids. They said we could get a free ticket to that night’s performance if we helped set up the circus. Help? This was a boy’s dream come true!

Soon we were pulling on ropes, opening boxcar doors and unloading wagons. We stretched canvas as small tractors buzzed back and forth. Just like the movies, elephants were used to pull ropes to raise the Big Top. It was dusty. I remember sweat stinging my eyes and running down my back.

Larry and I were assigned to a crew setting up benches on the bleachers that were rolled in under the Big Top. Row after row, section after section. Some guy was yelling at us. At one point a water wagon circled the three circus rings and sprayed water to wet down the dust. We were in the way and got a good soaking. After several hours and a few more jobs, including setting up animal pens, the circus was ready.  We were ushered into another line and given our general admission tickets. Show time!

After all that work, and having lost our lunch bags, were starved. We bought hot dogs, pop and candy with the admission money our parents had given us. It was an exciting, well-choreographed set of performances mostly happening all at once in all three rings. Clowns, contortionists, acrobats and animal acts. Lions, a bear that danced on a ball, horses circling a ring while beautiful almost naked girls stood on their backs.

When we left the Big Top, filthy and enthralled, we realized it was dark. Only then did we remember that our parents had sent us to the matinee performance. They had probably expected us for dinner. We found our bikes and peddled quickly home to the punishment that surely awaited us.

By the time we got home my mother was hysterical. My dad was just plain mad. I got the strap that night, but it was definitely worth it. Especially when it was announced that from then on, Barnum & Bailey would no longer perform under canvas tents, but only in indoor arenas. I knew for sure that Larry and I had witnessed history.


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About the author Poet, writer and teaching artist. Author of several poetry collections and nonfiction books. Member of Becketwood Cooperative and active in its marketing efforts.