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Jewish World Review May 3, 2000 / 28 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The ringmaster who looks back from your mirror -- SARASOTA, Fla. "They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb! When Jumbo died!"

Those are some of the lines I can repeat by heart -- lines from a favorite movie of mine: "The Greatest Show on Earth," the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1952. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde, "The Greatest Show on Earth" is something that would never be produced today: a big-budget film about circus life.

It was broadcast on a classic-movies cable channel one recent night while I was here in Sarasota. Sarasota is the traditional home of the circus; the Ringling family was one of the city's most prominent, and the circus made its winter home here. So there was something dementedly satisfying about talking along with the movie's circus dialogue as it came out of the TV set here in Circusland.

The angry advocate of a long circus tour, having just been told that there will be a short season, hitting only major cities: "Pass up the small cities and towns?"

His adversary: "The world's changed."

The circus traditionalist: "Kids haven't!"

All right, all right . . . perhaps I had a little too much time on my hands on this particular night. Still, "The Greatest Show on Earth" is more than 2 hours long, and I stuck with every minute of it, often speaking along with the narrator's riveting voice (the voice of DeMille himself), following the complex relationships between circus foreman Brad Braden (Heston), trapeze artist Holly (Hutton), her high-flying rival the Great Sebastian (Wilde), Buttons, the clown with the terrible secret he knows he must hide behind his greasepaint smile (Jimmy Stewart). . . .

"The Greatest Show on Earth" was produced just as television was beginning to dominate American life; the reason it is so fascinating to watch today is that we know now that everything was about to change. The big top -- the huge canvas tent that was hauled from town to town -- was about to go away for good; the greatest show on Earth, the world was about to learn, no longer needed to be carried to a field outside your city by a circus train. The greatest show on Earth was about to be delivered onto a glass screen.

And now we have moved even beyond that -- from a television screen to a different kind of screen. Cecil DeMille -- who seemed truly enamored of the circus -- never could have conceived of the circusmasters who have replaced the Ringling brothers, Barnum and Bailey. Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Case of AOL -- if they so desired, they could today lay claim to being proprietors of the greatest show on Earth.

Why? You can find it in a snatch of dialogue from the old movie. The Betty Hutton character, dismayed that the Cornel Wilde trapeze-artist character is being hired to spice up the circus box office, says: "He's strictly center ring, isn't he?" Meaning: Once the Great Sebastian joins the traveling circus, the Hutton character will be moved to a side ring.

But there is no center ring in the life of the American culture today. When the big top would come to town, the circus bosses would determine who would be the recipient of the audience's stares. If the Great Sebastian was given the center ring, then the audience's eyes would be his.

That control -- and all that it stood for -- is gone. The three-ring circus of the pre-television days was replaced by the three major networks -- but then they lost their dominance of the nation's eyes as the number of cable channels multiplied. And now, on the worldwide computer network, the idea of the center ring has been obliterated once and for all. The greatest show on Earth is available with the tap of a key -- all the world is out there (in one-dimensional form), and each man, woman and child is his or her own ringmaster. The world can come to your town 24 hours a day, no tent poles required -- you can choose the attractions.

The big top used to arrive once a year -- the traveling circus represented horizons almost intoxicating in their lure. Circuses are still out there today -- the biggest ones play not in tents, but in basketball arenas -- and a new trend is to mount much smaller, European-style circuses, under the little top: under scaled-down luxury tents. But however entertaining today's circuses may be, they are not the greatest show on Earth -- they can't, with a straight face, pretend to be.

Will any fan of old movies, 50 years from now, speak along with the dialogue from a movie about the new big top, the new make-your-own center rings?

Well . . . there was that movie called "You've Got Mail."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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