The Circus Is Coming Back to Town

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The circus is returning to the Strip.

Of course, the circus has never left Las Vegas. Going back to the 1940s, the Strip’s revue shows featured the kinds of animal acts that would have fit into touring circuses. The Strip was for many years the final home of vaudeville, with a typical show offering a star headliner supplemented by a line of dancers, as well as magicians, comedians, contortionists, jugglers and animals. Originally the act that would divert the audience while the headliner cleared his throat and the dancers changed costume, the sideshow eventually took center stage. Magicians Siegfried and Roy began starring in Irving Feld’s Beyond Belief at the Frontier in 1981, and nine years later began a 13-year run at Steve Wynn’s Mirage.

Wynn brought a more literal circus performance to Las Vegas with Cirque du Soleil, whose Mystere has been running at Treasure Island since 1993. Since then, Cirque’s brand of postmodern, theatrical acrobatics has become a constant on the Strip, with five shows currently running in addition to former Cirque director Franco Dragone’s Le Reve at Wynn Las Vegas. In importing Cirque, Wynn was only following in the footsteps of Jay Sarno, whose Circus Circus casino opened in 1968 with a full roster of performing circus acts and Tanya, the property’s resident elephant. Bill Bennett and Bill Pennington, who assumed control of Circus Circus in 1974, dialed down the circus vibe only slightly, with circus acts still performing daily at the resort, nearly a half-century after the Flying Canestrellis first lit up the Midway.

The latest incarnation of the circus to hit Las Vegas is Circus 1903, which will be performing at Paris Las Vegas beginning later this month. What makes the arrival of Circus 1903 interesting is that, nationally, circuses are at a low ebb. This May, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus held its final performance. After nearly 150 years, the “Greatest Show on Earth” ended. Shifting tastes, particularly growing concern over the plight of circus animals, led to the circus’ American decline.

As a side note, Las Vegas can take some credit for being at the forefront of anti–animal act rage: Nearly 30 years ago, a whistleblower brought attention to the trauma some performing animals were subjected to. In 1989, dancer Ottavio Gesmundo filmed animal trainer Bobby Berosini punching and shaking his headline orangutans backstage at the Stardust’s Lido de Paris. Gesmundo’s videotape, promoted by PETA, ended Berosini’s career in Las Vegas and can be seen, in retrospect, as an important milestone in public sentiment about performing animals. The tiger Montecore’s 2003 attack on Roy Horn ended his and Siegfried’s Mirage show and provided a cautionary example of what can go wrong even when, by all accounts, performing animals are treated well.

So it might look like the trend lines would predict a quick end to a new circus show. But maybe not. As usual for Vegas, this isn’t just a circus, but a circus with a difference. What gives Circus 1903 its novel spin on the circus—at least according to the press release—is that the spectacle of elephants is returning via the illusion of puppetry. We’ll have all the majesty and grace of pachyderms without the dung or allegations of abuse.

And that might be the appeal of a Las Vegas vacation in a nutshell. Real performing animals are smelly and dirty. We can’t be sure that this is what they really want to be doing, so there’s that twinge of guilt when we think that they’d be happier devouring gazelles by the watering hole or sedately munching on grass. And, as we know only too well, they have the potential to go horrifyingly off-script. For all those reasons, circuses with real animals are, as Ringling Brothers’ closure shows, on the way out, for better or worse.

But as a staged spectacle in a Las Vegas showroom, it’s another story. Visitors expect to see something a little extravagant and maybe even a little bit taboo. For many years, bare-chested showgirls filled that role. Now, with petabytes of nudes just a few clicks away and sequined showgirls mostly in the archives, elephants (live or puppet) may provide that thrill. It’s what Las Vegas entertainment does.

So Circus 1903, in addition to being a nostalgic look back at the golden years of the big top, is well within the stream of Las Vegas entertainment history.

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