Inside one man's obsession with the circus. 

The Big Top

Lavahn Hoh, 58, is a professor of drama at the University of Virginia, where he teaches a class on the history of the circus. He also is a member of the faculty at Barnum & Bailey's Clown College. What are some of the challenges facing circuses today? There are two major ones. One is just keeping the show active and staying in the public eye. We have the computer now, we have the electronic age — [the challenge is] just keeping the show fresh and relevant. The other is the animal-rights issue: Should the animals be in the circus? … It's argued back and forth. There are some wonderful circuses that have no animals at all. Will [the debate] ever come to a conclusion? I don't know. But something needs to be done to save the animals of the world. For example the Ringling operation has an Asian-elephant breeding compound in Florida and is doing an enormous amount to help those animals. You can see where I stand on that issue, I guess. Why are certain foods — popcorn, peanuts — tied to the circus? I'm not sure of the real circus connection between the foods they sell. I know there's this great legend that pink lemonade started in the circus. The story goes that in those days people got only two buckets of water a day. Apparently, one of the guys used a bucket to wash his red leotard in. Then somebody [selling drinks] took that water to make lemonade, and the lemonade was pink. That's disgusting. I know! I don't know if it's true, but it sure makes a good story. Who invented the circus? Nobody really invented it. It was a combination of a variety of acts put together throughout time. We can go back to 2300 B.C. and find comedians and performers. People sometimes think the circus itself goes back to classical times, but for the first real circus you only go back to the middle of the 18th century. Philip Astley, who was an equestrian, started doing riding demonstrations for people outside of London. Well, you can only look at a horse going back and forth in front of the Thames for so long, so he started adding comic riding and clowns. And then he put it into a circle — that's what circus means: circle. It was a big hit … and between 1760 and 1793, circuses spread around the world. Other circuses started adding more acts. With so much going on in a three-ring circus, what's the best way to watch? Well, I like to see it two or three times so I don't miss anything. I try to secure a seat that gets me up in the air a ways, about 12 or 14 rows, so I can see everything really well. But if you want to smell those elephants as they go by, sit in the front rows. How long have you been following the subject? My fascination started when I was a child. I saw my first circus when I was 4, and there's just something inside of me that — I can't explain it. The spectacle of it, the intrigue of it! The only time I ever skipped school it was to go to the circus. I was in sixth grade. I got in a little bit of trouble. But you know what? It was worth it. The circus consumes me. I've seen as many as 17 to 20 circuses a year, and I've been teaching this course since 1982. I have large collections of programs. I have videotapes of the circus, and I get to watch them. For me to teach this class — it's just wonderful. There's so much competition now. Will the circus die out? Never. Not as long as there are children of all ages. How's that for a tag line?

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