The circus used to be as familiar to television viewers as saloons and widowers raising a child with help from the surrounding village. Of course, it is also true that during this period, the circus used to play to sold out shows when it appeared in town. Let’s face facts: these are not the best of times for the circus. You might think that circus acts could provide only so much drama, humor and excitement for TV audiences. That is a perception that is apparently not in perfect harmony with objective reality.
The Greatest Show on Earth
One of the least deserving Best Picture Oscar winners of all time came to the small screen in 1963. The only question is what took it so long. The big show of Ringing Brothers and Barnum and Bailey got a nice plug every week in this tale of circus life every bit as melodramatic as the movie upon which it was based.
The 1960s were the heyday of the western and opportunities to explore the genre ranged from the science fiction-y adventures on “The Wild Wild West” to this show that was sort of “The Greatest Show on the Ponderosa.” “Frontier Justice” aired for just one season spanning 1961 and 1962 and was merely one of the first TV shows to explore the versatility of the circus setting.
But before experimentation with the circus them could be explored in a serious primetime western drama, it had to go through the growing pains of children’s programming. “Lucky Pup” ran from 1948 to 1951 and showcased circus life on weekday mornings through the art of puppetry. The fortunate dog of the title managed to come into an inheritance from a circus matriarch. Foodini was the evil circus magician whose goal in life was to steal that inheritance from Lucky Pup. Fortunately, Lucky Pup found some friends among the circus folk that included Jolo, the nice clown.
The Buick Circus Hour
What set the “The Buick Circus Hour” apart from the pack is that it was a live broadcast of a fictional show surrounding life in a circus. Aging Hollywood legend Joe E. Brown starred as an aging clown who helps guide the path of a young woman who had run away to join the circus not so much for the circus life itself, but for the love of the circus owner.
The mid-50s brought the circus to TV in in the form of a young orphan boy named Corky. Because, you know, isn’t every young circus orphan named Corky. The coolest part of Corky’s life, as well as “Circus Boy” the show, was his pet. A baby elephant. Even if everything else about a circus either bores or frightens you, surely you have to admit that it is impossible not to be enamored of a baby elephant. You would think that just having a show to tune in once a week with a baby elephant on display would be enough to turn “Circus Boy” into a hit, but alas the attraction ended after just two seasons.
Life is a Circus, Charlie Brown
Even Charlie Brown and Snoopy eventually got in on the relationship between TV and circuses. Snoopy, in fact, runs away to join the circus. For you younger readers, running away to join the circus used to be a prevalent theme in stories about children. I don’t think the dream is quite as alive as it used to be.