‘The Greatest Show on Earth’

By Emily Sokolik

Tom Dougherty travels the world wearing a red nose, white grease paint and floppy shoes. His goofy antics brought smiles to the faces of thousands gathered at Assembly Hall this weekend to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“Clowns participate in joy,” he said. “Is there anything better than that?”

Dougherty has performed in a wide variety of circuses, including one he created. He recently decided to return to “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the place where his career began more than 28 years ago.

The show

More than just clowns showed up at Assembly Hall to entertain audiences. Large crowds saw a wide range of acts featuring everything from tightrope walkers to trained elephants to trapeze artists performing daredevil maneuvers high in the air.

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A total of more than 10,000 spectators attended the five performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday, said Kevin Ullestad, director of Assembly Hall. He said the Ringling Bros. Circus is a great show for families. Many of the circus performers are families themselves who travel around the world together.

“It’s a great community they create,” he said.

Trailers arrived at Assembly Hall Wednesday to begin preparation for the show, Ullestad said. It takes 175 people a total of 14 hours to setup for the event.

Workers hauled in 500 tons of equipment to assemble structures for performers like trapeze artist Josuber Neves.

Neves, from Brazil, said he learned trapeze from his father. He performs with several members of his family who practice four to five hours a day and travel throughout the year. Neves said the long and tedious hours are worth it in the end.

“This is our dream,” he said.

Most aerialists begin to learn the complicated art of the trapeze by practicing on a trampoline, Neves said. Eventually one becomes skilled enough to take the act to a height of more than 35 feet above the ground.

Ringling Brothers is currently on its American tour. Performances continue in Bloomington, Ill. on Tuesday and in Pennsylvania later this week.

Victoria Zsilak, an acrobat from Hungary, loves being a part of the Ringling Bros. Circus.

“Oh, it’s great,” she said. “It’s the best when the people respond and they like what you do. It’s the best feeling in the world.”


“There’s a sucker born every minute,” PT Barnum is rumored to have said. Barnum is credited with the creation of the Ringling Bros. Circus, according to the Ringling Bros. Web site. He showcased odd exhibitions in the 19th century including, “The Feejee Mermaid,” which supposedly was an embalmed mermaid purchased near Calcutta, India by a Boston seaman.

Barnum’s success came in 1871 when he began touring around the country with the attraction he called, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The show was wildly popular and boasted seating accommodations for 10,000 people. Barnum joined forces with James Bailey in 1881, and the two toured together beginning in 1888. In 1907, the Ringling Brothers, seven in all, purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus for $400,000.

Today, the Ringling Brothers Circus continues to draw large crowds, just as it did more than 100 years ago. Young and old came from all across central Illinois to attend the performances this weekend. Bill and Cindy Hand of Urbana brought their daughter, Tiffany, 6, to the circus for the first time.

“She loves the performing dogs,” Hand said.

Grealena Phea came from Savoy with her son and daughter who most enjoyed the Arabian-white horses.

“As soon as he hears the music, he starts dancing,” Phea said referring to her four-year-old son.


Not everyone, however, was happy to see the circus come to Assembly Hall. Belinda Brouette, freshman in LAS, is the president-in-training for Students Improving the Lives of Animals. Brouette said Ringling Bros. mistreats its animals. Since 1992, 33 elephants owned by Ringling Bros. have died, Brouette said.

“If you want to see exotic animals, why don’t you just go to the zoo,” she said. “It’s more animal friendly and much cheaper.”

Brouette said members of the group were harassed and called names while they protested against the Ringling Bros. Circus at the intersection of First Street and Kirby Avenue before each performance.

“It kind of hurt a lot,” she said. “We’re not forcing our views on anyone.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is a national organization that also speaks out against Ringling Bros. Trainers use whips, muzzles and bullhooks to train their animals to perform tricks, said Matt Rice, spokesman for PETA. Rice said PETA has videotapes illustrating the abuse of Ringling Bros.’ animals.

Ringling Bros., however, defends the treatment of their animals.

“Ringling Bros. has an expert animal care team consisting of staff veterinarians and full-time animal care staff on each unit who are all dedicated to the animals’ physical and emotional well-being 24/7,” said Bruce Read, vice president of animal stewardship, on the Ringling Bros. Web site.