Thursday, December 10, 2009

The "Greatest Show in Town."

It's not Ringling Brothers and it's not Cirque du Soleil, but it's a Cincinnati tradition that has traversed other mid-western cities and the entire nation since 1906. Usually stopping for three days of shows in the Queen City, the Syrian Shrine Circus has been hosted by both the Cincinnati Gardens and the Schumacher Center on UC's campus over the years, providing a more intimate and unique view into the American three-ring circus tradition that is rarely found today.

This year, the circus stopped at the historic Cincinnati Gardens, for its new "Holiday Extravaganza" show.

It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I hadn't stepped foot in the Cincinnati Gardens since I did some photo and media work for the Jr. Cyclones hockey team back in 2006. Even then the atmosphere of the place still wasn't like it used to be when the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks called it home.

I had spoken with the Shrine Circus office in New York city over the phone. Mr. Kreiner had been nice enough to grant me permission to photograph the set up of the circus and one of the shows. I wasn't doing this for a school project or on an assignment for anyone, I wanted to do this for myself, a personal project. I hadn't gone to a circus since I was a kid and wanted to document what I felt was one of the last "real" American circuses. Ringling Brothers puts on a great show, but I feel things like Cirque de Soleil are better suited for well off tourists in Las Vegas and that the "major" circuses lacked the kind of personality and tradition that had been found in the three ring acts of our nations past. Entertainment like this was great to grow up on.

- A worker assembles a piece of the Shrine Circus show.

The circus' crew and cast worked together to bring in all the equipment and set up the show. Performers who would eventually be seen flying on the trapeze and performing death defying stunts were helping to carry in the plush animals and souvenirs while others made cotton candy and set up the concessions.

Most people didn't really care to be photographed or talk too long with me and to be honest I can't blame them. They were just going about their jobs and probably ready to take a break for Thanksgiving. They were all incredibly friendly though. There wasn't much going on with the setup and I spent most of the time just wandering about the Gardens, remembering how great it is to see a hockey game there.

After spending Thanksgiving in Indiana I returned home to photograph the Saturday afternoon show. Walking into the arena and onto the floor the smells of the circus took over; popcorn, cotton candy, elephant waste. Kids and their families ran about to the elephant rides, giant slide, face painting and to get the autographs of the various performers and clowns roaming around.

The announcement was made for the audience to take their seats and the lower sections of the Gardens began to fill up. Charles, one of the well known ushers at the Gardens remarked to me; "looks like a good crowd today."

The show opened up with bright lights, acrobatic performers and modern pop songs that felt a bit awkward, but seemed to work with the show. With songs from High School Musical and Hannah Montana blaring, it was evident who the target audience in the seats was.

Not many realize the constant activity and hard work that goes into a show like this. While one act is going on, someone is always busy setting up in the darkness or backstage, getting ready to keep the show going.

Following a brief intermission of more elephant rides, face painting and plastic light sword buying, the show resumed with one of it's headline acts: The Flying Wallendas.

The 200mm lens of my camera allowed me to get a pretty close view of the Wallenda family as they traversed the tightrope on two bicycles, you could see them sweating and starting to shake. Just crazy.

The BMX bike stunts of one performer were more evidence of the generation and audience of today that the circus attempts to appeal to, while the clowns carried on an always classic circus tradition.

Eventually a parade of elephants marked the beginning of the grand finale for what the ringmaster called "The Greatest Show in Town."

After the finale ceased, the arena's lights came back on and the elephant rides started again. Kids ran about to purchase more light up swords, go on the rides and meet the clowns. I walked around for a bit before saying goodbye to Charles, one of the nicest ushers and a friend from the Mighty Ducks/Jr. Cyclones days who can also be found at US Bank Arena for Cyclones games:

The Shrine Circus puts on a great show. Even as a twenty year old photographer standing on the arena floor, I think I enjoyed it just as much as every little kid in that audience. Seeing the Shrine Circus at a place like the Cincinnati Gardens is a tradition here. I'll take the cheap tickets, gritty atmosphere, plastic swords, cotton candy, burnt popcorn and "Soul to Squeeze" like feeling that the Shrine Circus offers over the Las Vegas style opera extravagance "Cirque de Soleil" provides any day.

View all the stories from and related to the Cincinnati Gardens over the years.

Updates | Oct. 9, 2017:
  • Unfortunately, the historic Cincinnati Gardens is now closed and slated for demolition. Several stories about the place were featured on QC/D over the years. 
  • These days, the Shrine Circus heads to BB and T Arena at Northern Kentucky University when servicing the Cincinnati area. 
  • While the Shrine Circus is still touring, the much larger and higher-budget Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus has ceased operations completely. Its last trip through Cincinnati was covered here
Update | March 13, 2018:


  1. Great shots! I especially love the shot of the bicycle shadow. Thanks for posting them all.

    I've never seen the Syrian Shrine Circus, but it looks like it might be more fun than the Ringling Brothers which keeps getting smaller and more stale every year.

  2. "for it's new "Holiday Extravaganza" show." Should be "for its new…"

  3. Awesome Shots! I wish I wouldn't have been so busy and broke I would have loved to go...The bicycle shadow is one of my favorites.

  4. Thanks Ox and Alison, glad you like them, thanks for taking a look.

    Anon, thanks for the tip, I made the correction. I seem to make that mistake a lot. I appreciate it.

  5. Thanks for the memories. I went to this circus as a child and really enjoyed it. I'm surprised they are still around, tho. It seems that circus shows aren't as popular as they used to be.
    Btw, i can't believe you are 20!! You have a great talent in photography! I really enjoy your work. Hope you have time to keep it up!

  6. Come back to the Gardens on March 27 to see the Cincinnati Rollergirls' first home game of the season! :)

  7. Lauren, I went to one of the bouts last year, but didn't get too many photographs. I'll definitely try to make it to the opener on March 27th!

  8. Seriously fantastic photos. I'm so used to not seeing people in your pics that I was actually surprised to see how beautifully you captured each personality. Really nice work.

  9. I was at the evening show that same day with my family. I love the intimacy of the show. The clowns will go out of their way to sign autographs for the kids.