By RENE TORRES
Special to the Parade
It was common during the early 1900s for everything to stop when the circus came to town.
Men, women, children and businessmen, who would close their shops, lined the unpaved streets of that era to get a glimpse of the big top as it paraded down main street.
It was during the “Depression,” in 1934, that the spectacular train circus came to Brownsville. The circus industry had survived the stock market crash of 1929, but by the early 30s it was losing its audience. It came to the point that circus goers were exchanging their entertainment nickels to buy a piece of bread.
Regardless of the economic woes, the “Big Top” came to town in Brownsville, which was a small city then before growing by over 1,000 people. The circus was a city within a city; it had its own postmaster, physician, lawyer, drug store, detectives, barber shop, wheelwright and blacksmith shops and all the other things that go with a well-regulated community.
It was an enormous amusement enterprise, a circus official called it “the greatest circus ever devised. “The three special trains of double-length cars, rattled into town early Thursday morning from Harlingen, where it had exhibited the day before.
Hours before the main attraction, hundreds of young kids and the not so young gathered to witness the striking spectacle of a circus unloading and establishing headquarters. As most kids, like I was during my era, the kids then were spellbound as they witnessed the “The Big Top” go up; elephants assisted men in raising the main tent up into the air that stood up with gigantic poles.
The Al G. Barnes circus made its temporary home at Fronton and 5th Streets. A change to this new location from the corner of Palm Boulevard and Paredes Road was made because it was more accessible for school kids to attend.
Elementary schools were dismissed early and parents and children thronged the tents. Interest in the scheduled performances was at high peak throughout the day, and early in the afternoon literally hundreds were seen making their way toward the “Big Top.”
Although the price of admission was not available, the typical price for a circus ticket during the 1930s was 25 cents for children and 50 cents for adults. So according to the Circus Historical Society, “People with little disposable income may have had to choose: Go to the Big Top, or see a movie about the Big Top. On Wednesday, kids of Brownsville went to sleep dreaming of the circus, on Thursday their dream came true. The afternoon performance began at 2 p.m., which was followed with an evening show at 8 p.m.
The opening was an unforgettable event. The audience came to their feet when 100 girls, in their beautiful wardrobe, danced to the beat of great choruses, orchestras and golden tone organs.
This was only the beginning, as soon after the amazing Esther Escalante made her way to the top of the tent to perform her trapeze act. Miss Escalante caused thousands to gasp with amazement as she turned a somersault in mid-air, high up on the dome of the “Big Top,” without the benefit of a net.
This was the greatest show on earth, and yes, not everyone during this era could afford to attend, but for those that did, the circus for that moment broke the monotony of their everyday lives.
The circuses of then were having financial problems, maybe in Brownsville it had some good days, but in general, the competition for the slice of the dollar became greater. With the Depression, coupled with the emergence of the radio and motion pictures and other forms of entertainment, the traveling circus was no longer the only game in town.
Janet Davis, professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of “The Circus Age,” said the circus was the biggest thing going at the turn of the century. Today when the circus comes to town, it’s a totally different experience. It doesn’t shut anything down.
Only 15 days after the Al G. Barnes circus left town, Brownsville was already making plans for the arrival of the next spectacle — the Sam B. Dill three ring circus, which included, “The Tom Mix Rodeo and Show.”