The Circus Comes to Town

The sweet scent of cotton candy fills the air and salty peanuts crunch underfoot. Buttery popcorn glides past on the shoulders of peddlers, desperately trying to convince parents to indulge their children, while flashing DayGlo

The sweet scent of cotton candy fills the air and salty peanuts crunch underfoot. Buttery popcorn glides past on the shoulders of peddlers, desperately trying to convince parents to indulge their children, while flashing DayGlo sticks shine loudly.

Suddenly everything goes quiet. A drum roll begins, a single spotlight floods the arena and then, before the wide eyes of parents and children alike, appears the glorious and glittering Ring Master Kevin Venardos.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the greatest show on earth!” Venardos hollers at the top of his lungs, as the First Union Spectrum in Philadelphia fills with a level of anticipation that only the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus can still induce.

This single man, dressed in a purple sequined tuxedo, will guide the captivated audience through the next two hours of awe-inspiring entertainment as fluidly and gracefully as his predecessors have for the past 132 years.

Since Kenneth Feld and his father Irvin took over Ringling Bros. in the 1950s, they have driven the company toward immortality. Feld, a concert promoter, took bold steps to whisk his new prize as far from bankruptcy as possible and into national recognition through ad campaigns, the addition of a second touring group and year-round performances. Throughout all of these changes one thing has remained constant: Ringling Bros.’ ability to captivate audiences.

Headlining this year’s circus are performers such as the human cannonball, Jumpin’ Jon Wiess, who is shot sheer across the arena, and Crazy Wilson, who slides down the high wire. Over six different types of contortionists and human building blocks leave audience members mesmerized and begging for more.

Ringling Bros. prove watching a circus can be fun for men and women of all ages. Contortionist Mei Ling performs her body bending techniques on the back of a motorcycle while wearing only a body stocking with a few tastefully placed sequins.

Back again after a four-year rest, David Larible has returned as one of Ringling’s only headlining clowns. Although the rest of Clown Alley performs between main attractions, Larible is the only clown given the chance to perform solo. With the help of a few volunteers he doesn’t have to do much beyond breathing to get a laugh out of the audience.

For those who want even more excitement, Master Chy Fu Dey, a Chi-Gong expert, and his two pupils wrap one-inch-thick metal wire around their bare necks. They also jump through a flaming hoop lined with razor-sharp swords, while blind folded.

With a rich heritage in training, animals still are the main focus of the show. Eleven elephants, both young and old, parade around the rings performing stunts that one couldn’t imagine such a large animal capable of.

Aside from the monstrous elephants, horses ruled the arena. Sylvia Zerbini and her seven Arabian horses were the first to perform this year, demonstrating her ability to tame even the wildest creature into loving submission.

Just as Zerbini gallops out of the arena with her seven white horses, the Nine Gladiators come roaring in on their high horses and begin a show that leaves both them and the audience on the edge of their seats. For a warm up, the group begins by climbing under the belly of their stallions at full gallop.

Those who have a thing for more dangerous animals will love T.M. the Gator Guy’s act. Not only does he enjoy the company of a 250-pound albino python, but has a penchant for putting his head in the mouth of a 10-foot long alligator.

The biggest and brightest act to appear this year is Sara the Tiger Whisperer. With a soft voice and a calm head, she has tamed seven Bengal tigers, three of which are albino. If it weren’t for the iron chain fence seperating Sara from the audience, it would almost seem as if she were playing with house cats. Low grunting noises are the only sound that one can hear as these giant felines pad around the arena performing their impressive stunts.

Although this may seem like everything that can fit into three rings, don’t worry, this isn’t even half of the unforgettable experience that only Ringling Bros. can bring. So put homework away for the night and head down to the First Union Spectrum for what really is “the greatest show on Earth.”

The show runs through April 28. Performances during the week start at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., with weekend shows starting at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or the First Union box office. Prices are $12, $17 and $22 with limited VIP admission. For further information, contact the Spectrum at 215-336-2000.

Moira Cochran can be reached at

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